The Green Sheet Online Edition
May 14, 2007 • Issue 07:05:01
Active agent, passive income
Nine years ago, Bart Kohler left the mortgage industry to become a merchant level salesperson (MLS) with Cardservice International Inc.
He is now an authorized agent with Merchant Service Center, a registered ISO of Bancorp South. A family man, Kohler most appreciates the flexibility his career affords him, not to mention the residual income it provides.
In this interview, Kohler reveals why his job often doesn't feel like work, his secret to merchant retention and how he steers merchants away from thinking, "Why should I pay a discount rate? The customer pays interest."
The Green Sheet: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Bart Kohler: I wanted to be anything but a salesman. My father has been selling insurance for over 40 years. Growing up I didn't want any part of that. But now he is my best friend and mentor. He has been a great source of information and support to my business.
GS: What business/professional experience did you have before becoming an MLS?
BK: I sold everything from Kirbys [vacuum cleaners] to cars. Sales was always a way to "write my own paycheck." When it comes down to it, everyone is really on commission. If they don't do their part, they are replaced with someone who can.
GS: What do you like best about your career, and what's been most challenging?
BK: Freedom. Being able to make my own schedule is priceless to me, my wife and my son. In nine years I have seen many challenges from no-residual programs to free terminals to rebated processing.
Finding new ways to approach merchants to talk about the same old thing continues to keep things interesting.
GS: Are you working as an employee or contractor for someone else, or do you own your own company?
BK: I co-founded the company with the current owners back when we incorporated years ago. I have since then sold my interests but remain as a contracted authorized agent. And I may consult on special projects from time to time.
GS: What has kept you in the industry?
BK: Having a passive income is a luxury many people never experience, even in sales. This industry offers that income to anyone willing to invest the time to learn the merchant bankcard business.
GS: What's been your greatest success as an agent?
BK: I believe the greatest success as an agent is to have loyal customers who refer and repeat.
When you keep merchants for nine years through several processors, that is a great success because you are the product bought by the merchant, not the bank or the company doing the processing. This is relationship-selling at its best.
GS: What's the funniest sales experience you've ever had?
BK: Wasn't really funny, but ... a merchant liked running the terminal in demo mode, because it worked faster, and didn't realize for two months that this caused the business to run hundreds of unauthorized cards.
I assisted the merchant in recovering a surprising amount of the sales by looking up customers' names in the phone book and calling them to explain the error. I was shocked at the positive response people have to straight talk.
GS: How do you balance the demands of your work and personal lives?
BK: Merchant Service Center handles all of my customer service. I only take service calls when it is absolutely necessary.
With today's modern conveniences _ cell phones, PDAs, laptops _ my personal and work lives are perfectly integrated. I can sell almost anywhere, anytime. GS: Have you ever tried to move your merchants from one processor to another?
BK: I have never moved a merchant without the blessings of the contract holder. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. I have heard the horror stories. Wait out the contract. Follow the rules. Play the game.
GS: Do you have a surefire way to resolve conflict?
BK: That is a tough question. Surefire? No. But I have found in most cases the processor is right, but the customer wants restitution.
The agent must weigh the dollar amount against a refund or whatever the case may be. Bottom line is the customer is always right.
GS: Merchants are savvier now about credit card processing. How does this affect MLSs?
BK: We must lead them. A good agent/MLS stays on top of the industry by reading The Green Sheet and talking to others.
GS: How do you generate leads?
BK: It was door-to-door cold calling from '98 to '01. Many miles and many doors. Now it is mostly referral and repeat. After a while, people will know who you are if you do it right.
GS: How do you explain interchange rates to prospects?
BK: I talk about a giant coin sorter _ how a card is placed into a category depending on risk and cost. I explain how basic banking costs affect consumers and how this business is very similar.
It takes the focus off of "Why should I pay? The customer pays interest?" It shows risk; business owners understand risk.
GS: What would people be surprised to know about the way you do your job?
BK: Many merchants don't realize I am sitting by the pool or playing with my son while I am making a living. It's like not working at all.
GS: Why is it important to have a full arsenal of products to offer merchants?
BK: If you don't have it and the other MLS does ... you'd better have it. If you don't take care of them, someone else will.
GS: How do you ensure account retention?
BK: We give merchants what they want. People don't want to cancel; they want a reason to stay.
GS: Do you think there will always be street sales?
BK: It is so hard to predict what may or may not happen to this industry. But face-to-face sales has always and will always remain the best way to create lasting relationships.
GS: What do you think about "selling" free terminals?
BK: This niche may be for some, but my merchants are well-informed. If they aren't, it is my job to inform them. People who take advantage give me an opportunity to "right their wrongs," even if they make that task harder through opportunistic sales tactics.
GS: What would a good training program consist of?
BK: Don't overwhelm newcomers. Tailor-train to an agent's abilities. Education and information are useful, but to watch it done is key. Let them see you in action.
GS: How should an MLS go about choosing an ISO partner?
BK: Research. Analyze. Negotiate. Get consulting; then sign an agreement. Some MLSs have better deals than ISOs. Always negotiate.
GS: How has The Green Sheet helped you?
BK: It is a valuable source of information on the industry, technologies and partners. Merchants love an agent who is informed.
GS: Any advice for newcomers?
BK: Sign with a good company/ISO. Ask questions. See merchants. Visit local businesses and learn from them. Their needs and dislikes are your goals and obstacles. Know your market.
GS: What hobbies do you enjoy?
BK: I enjoy ancient history and the Bible. I actually preach twice a month as a Guest Minister at a local church. I have been doing that for almost two years. It keeps me busy.
GS: What's your greatest dream?
BK: I am living it. I have a passive income and a great family. What more could you ask for?
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