Ben Abel, Regional Director at Bank Associates Merchant Services and member of The Green Sheet Advisory Board, spends a good deal of time helping others learn how to navigate the complex payments industry and succeed in sales.
In this interview, he discusses what drew him to merchant services, his approach to merchant retention and relationship building, and the industry's current challenges.
I'd always been a "people person" and, after completing college, was looking to build a career path that I could be proud of and, hopefully, continue along for a very long time. Getting involved with BAMS doing merchant services looked like it could be a good fit for both my skills and professional ambition.
I first started working with BAMS as an account executive and was completely fresh to the industry. I'd become aware of the industry and the opportunity through some friends I knew from school and was immediately hooked. I was attracted to the sales approach BAMS took, had a lot of confidence in the executive staff, and thought this was a company that showed real potential for market and personal growth.
Later I saw internal key performance indicators showing growth in our merchant base, portfolio volume and agent success, which validated that we were doing something great here. Being listed in the Inc. 5000 was also a nice impartial confirmation of that.
To give all credit where it is due, my sales approach is a continuance of the conceptual framework our Director of Sales, Tom Waters, first built many years ago. New York City, where we started, as with many other geographic markets, has been hyper-competitive for some time, so the need to differentiate was paramount if we intended to garner any success.
We also have a two-pronged approach to dealing with merchants for the purpose of account stickiness. The first is to expand the scope of the conversation and get the merchant interested in more than one product or relationship you offer; it helps solidify you as an expert, as well as creates more connections that have to be broken if merchants want to move their processing. It becomes more complex than just updating a terminal or gateway, and includes needing a new method for deposit reconciliation and chargeback management, reproducing customer information manager profiles, etc.
Second, we look to define ourselves as industry experts for our clients. We want to be more than a vendor by making ourselves a resource to them. I like to say that in the same way you call your accountant with questions about tax liability or consult your GP with health questions, we want to be where you turn with questions about merchant services.
This could entail fielding calls with questions like, "Hey, I saw XYZ on the news and wanted to know if it was applicable to me?" or "I had a customer place an order with our wholesale department, and I have my concerns, what should I do?" By being that person for them we become far more than just a company with a rate to be beaten.
When it comes to merchants, one of the most important things in defining yourself as more than just a vendor is to treat them as more than just a client. When I see things I think may interest a merchant, I shoot the individual an email with the link and say, "Saw this and thought of you."
For example, one of my clients is a men's tie online retailer, and in my Internet travels I came across a website that sells matching adult/child-sized ties for fathers and sons. It seemed like an interesting, somewhat niche angle on tie sales that my client might want to explore to expand his market base, be it through a referral partnership or something of the sort. I treat him as more than just a client and source of residuals. He is someone I keep in mind and want to see succeed.
Another thing I recommend is frequenting their businesses and asking questions that go beyond just, "How's your terminal working?" Ask about their families and their interests, and tell them about yours. I have a standing invitation for a golf lesson with one of my clients that I have to cash in on one of these days!
Rather than belabor points about our changing industry, I'd rather look at a different angle. One interesting, but challenging at times, point that some struggle with is the need to make sure we're applying the right kind of support to the various members of the somewhat fluid and diverse merchant landscape.
On one hand, we have an industry pushing out all kinds of innovative products that offer top-level analytics and an app selection as diverse as the iTunes store itself. On the other hand, we still have clients whose eyes glaze a little when we ask if they need their terminals to be dial or IP. It's important to make sure we appropriately serve the entire market and not solely tailor our attention to those who want to be at the forefront of technology.
Even something like getting EMV in place and functioning seamlessly was, and truly continues to be, a big enough hassle for many, many people; at the same time, we throw every new solution we can think of at them before they're comfortable with the last one.
So one major challenge is to be innovative in industry advancement while also remaining focused on merchants' day-to-day needs and making life easier for them on every gradient of the technological spectrum. It's easy to get excited about the newest fintech development without always considering if it fills an actual need in the market. Someone brought this up at one of the Transact 16 educational sessions on apps, saying how while it's great to see everything new and available to merchants who, for example, now have a dozen time-clock apps available to them, is there a point where it may become overwhelming?
The important way to approach this, I feel, is to make sure, when working with a current client or prospect, to not get tunnel vision about the shiny new toy in the industry, and instead, be able to see the individual's perspective and needs to make sure you're tailoring your service correctly.
I've used The Green Sheet as a resource for years, both for the direct content provided and the dynamic feedback available within the forum. I don't know if I'd fully consider myself an "expert," but I think the knowledge and experience I've built over the years makes me a valuable resource, and I saw being a member of the advisory board as another chance to contribute to the quality and the discourse of our industry as a whole. I appreciate the opportunity and the recognition of having been accepted.
This is an answer that could span another thousand words. In short, my interests are rather diverse, although I do not have time to indulge in most of them to the degree I'd like. My bucket list is starting to look more like a barrel list at this point. Some things that take up my non-work time are Toastmasters; running (hoping to be ready for a marathon in the next year or so); Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu; tennis; volunteering; and I really enjoy reading about history, psychology, finance and sociology topics. Dan Carlin has a great history podcast I've been listening to lately.
A recent book I thoroughly enjoyed was The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail – but Some Don't by Nate Silver. Learning about the history of various methods of making predictions and how to improve your own was intrinsically fascinating and provided useful insights into my own processes for forecasting. I would recommend this to anyone.
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