When asked to list the three most important strategies for success in the ring, a top-flight boxer once said, "Training, training - and training." His statement amused his audience, but it was also true. And for ISOs and merchant level salespeople (MLS), the need for proper training is no joke. With competition for merchant accounts getting fiercer every day, preparation and education are more critical than ever.
The payments industry is constantly evolving with emerging products and services, proliferating federal and state legislation, and expanding data security regulations. Consequently, training should be a top priority.
Some skeptics dismiss the benefits of offering more than rudimentary, on-the-job training. And during challenging periods, it is tempting to cut back on staff development. But to thrive in the current economy it may be necessary to expand both classroom and on-the-street training.
When asked about the benefits of book versus hands-on training, Christine Armitage, Director of Training and Education for Heartland Payments Systems Inc., said, "Well, number one, training is critical and two, I can't even comprehend an organization that says you can't have both.
"Yes, your time out on the street is your training, but what we do is try to complement that with academia as well as one-on-one, street-sales training. The combination is invaluable."
For First Data Corp. Training Director Staci Hull, training is a multifaceted, vital piece of the organizational puzzle. "Training is just so much bigger than being in the classroom," Hull said.
"Our managers are involved in coaching and mentoring. We invest in the latest and greatest technology and training tools so that we can teach and reach our MLSs or ISOs even if they're thousands of miles away. Oh, yes, we take training very seriously here."
Shortsighted companies believe time devoted to training is time lost on the essential task of building residuals; when they hire MLSs, they expect immediate productivity. However, the irony is that this philosophy undermines ISO profits.
"The first mistake we make with training is that many [payment organizations] design programs to fit what they do, to meet their corporate bottom line, and give MLSs a minimal to nonexistent foundation of knowledge," said Jeff Fortney, Director of Business Development at St. Louis, Mo.-based Clearent LLC.
"You keep chasing the dollar without any thought to higher standards of training and preparation, and ultimately there will be some major upheavals in this business," he added. "That's not how you create success. We've got to keep our ISOs and agents in a consistent, educated position if we're to continue to thrive as an industry - it's more important than anything else."
Some industry veterans believe the absence of industry-wide, standardized training and certification programs could be detrimental to the industry's infrastructure.
"One of the ugly realities in the payments industry is that training is proprietary to each sales organization," said Mark Dunn, founder of payment consultancy Field Guide Enterprises LLC and creator of the Field Guide for ISOs training seminars offered at acquirers meetings throughout the country.
"There is very little industry-standard training for MLSs because ISOs are in the sales business, and salespeople don't want to convey their secrets," Dunn said. "They all compete with one another, and some think this is a barrier to effective training within our industry.
"Now I'm not advocating giving away trade secrets, but at the same time we have to find a common basis to coalesce. All boats rise with the tide, it is said, and if we can somehow establish a better basis for training, then the whole industry gets better."
Many payment professionals, both management staff and feet on the street, agree that for training programs to succeed, they must be customized to the individual ISO and processor. Indeed, training, mentoring and education programs are as varied as the payment organizations facilitating them.
Jerry Federico, National Product Manager for check processor ProfitStars, said he helped customize a training program centered on answering the question, Why would a merchant want this? Then product features and benefits are discussed.
"What's critical to the ISO is not so much knowing our system, but that the ISO believes in the business case," Federico said. "Once they get that, then they can start talking about equipment and value-adds. And we have a whole team of people whose mission is to strictly support ISOs and MLSs outside of the selling part. Their job is to support them, answer questions, and help them expand their geographic and vertical market footprint."
Fortney believes a cookie-cutter approach to training can be fatal, especially for small, start-up ISOs. "I always customize my training, because if you don't you're not going to be successful," Fortney said. "Make your training rote and inflexible, and you're only going to reach a third of your audience. And sadly, this is where we have some of our biggest failures as an industry."
Advocates of customization see it simply as programs shaped and implemented to a given company's business model. Many processors and ISOs have in-house, core programs, but they encourage networking, too.
"We recommend our sales agents connect with their peers and other folks in the industry to understand some of the challenges and successes they go through," Hull said. "We also believe that it's important to share best practices with other organizations regularly."
Fortney said there is an old rule of thumb in the sales profession: Don't spill your candy. "What I literally mean by that is I am not going to train someone who is not in turn going to use me," he said. "You have to consider that every time you begin training someone, or you're just an unpaid consultant. Conversely, MLSs need to choose a partner to do business with, and then they need to stick with them.
In his continuing efforts to support his partners, Fortney writes a monthly newsletter on training and selling. "It's not public," he said. "I only send it to the people that are signed and submitting business with us. I don't see this as keeping secrets, but again I don't spill my candy to MLSs and ISOs that aren't with me," he added.
Beginning MLSs who want to unlock the secrets of the payments industry can explore several avenues. "If you're a newbie, you might want to start looking for payment providers on the Internet, and possibly publications within the payment space, for related topics and materials," said Theodore Svoronos, Vice President, Business Development & Strategic Partnerships for Group ISO Inc.
"But your search doesn't really begin until you speak to providers," he said. "Ask them what are the governing bodies, relevant publications and associations in the payments industry. Ask them how they learned. Then go to the nearest regional association and say, 'I'm starting fresh, looking to become an ISO agent. How do I get more information, who do I contact and why?'"
Fortney suggested new MLSs do thorough research and find ISO partners who will work with them and get them up to speed on sales techniques, products and services, and security issues. "Find an ISO who will train you in the areas that interest you and that you need to know," Fortney said. "Also, and more importantly, find an ISO who will give you access to people who have been there and done that, who are not afraid to help you."
Additionally, new MLSs can gain basic industry knowledge in a short time through third-party training organizations. Consulting firm Glenbrook Partners offers a two-day "boot camp" that gives an overview of the payments sphere in the United States. "It's very intense, and we cover the whole payments landscape," said Carol Benson, Education Director at Glenbrook.
"And when you think about the training requirements you might face, there are really three types of knowledge that you will need: product knowledge about the services you are selling and implementing, high skill sets in sales and customer management, and a deep, broad understanding of this industry," she noted.
Federico believes improving as an MLS requires gaining technical knowledge and using that information as a value-add to closing deals. "I'll tell you one of the critical things that separate my sales team," he said. "And that is every one of them can go in, do a presentation and be able to explain most, if not all, information technology questions to merchants.
"Of course, we have product experts for higher levels of expertise, but when the salesperson doesn't know squat about the product, the merchant notices. So our mission is to train those salespeople on the basics of all our technical products and processes. You need to know enough to be a trusted advisor to your clients."
Technical expertise, polished sales techniques and security compliance knowledge are valuable assets when securing a niche in the payments world. But perhaps the most essential element to ISO and MLS success and growth is a sense of identity and connection with the organizations with which they work. Leading companies in the payments space endorse this perspective.
"I think what Heartland does better than anyone else is recognize the value of someone who comes to us with an entrepreneurial spirit, and they can really take advantage of that," Armitage said.
"We want to invest in that and build our training on the values we present to the client. Our company culture is unique because we are looking for people who are interested in that opportunity to build their own business."
Other industry veterans mirror that sentiment, honoring the values of community, unconditional support and continuing education to tap each MLS's full potential. "When someone signs with me, they know they have access to me, and I'll never walk away," Fortney said. "But it also brings up an interesting dichotomy that helps to reinforce that connection.
"On the one hand they can call me anytime; conversely, it gives me the ability to follow how they are learning and help them immediately if they need it. We're looking for partners to grow with us in that environment and stick with us, and this is a tremendous way to gauge that."
Unfortunately, the payments industry has recently - and inadvertently - gained some highly undesirable attention. High-profile data breaches of large corporate networks appear to have increased significantly of late. Such compromises can be attributed to several factors: more intelligent cyber criminals, more sophisticated hacking equipment and the lack of end-to-end data encryption.
Additionally, payment professionals are struggling with merchants who, due to budget constraints, indifference or ignorance, are still not Payment Card Industry (PCI) Data Security Standard (DSS) compliant.
"Something that has always been a mystery to me is why more ISOs and processors don't offer PCI training for both their staffs and merchants," said Walter Conway, PCI Consultant and Trainer.
"To say there is a dearth of PCI training in the payments industry is a kindness," he said. "There is a yawning chasm here, and I think this is crazy that security, compliance and risk management issues aren't a top priority. Proper PCI training would have tremendous benefit to ISOs, as well as value to the merchants. It would be cost-effective, and it's also a great way to competitively differentiate your service from other sales organizations."
Conway said ISOs and MLSs don't need to know every nuance of security, but they need to have a reasonable understanding of PCI and other government and industry compliance mandates.
Merchants want ISOs to make PCI as easy and painless as possible, and they want to know what software packages are known to have been compromised.
"You can sell fraud all day long, but when merchants grumble about upgrade costs to achieve PCI standards, just remind them that compliance is a lot cheaper than a breach," Conway said. "That in itself is a value-add. And remember, PCI is a business issue; it's not a technology issue, so you have to approach merchants with that in mind."
To help ISOs with all security and compliance issues, Conway offers a one-day, "deep dive" PCI training overview. He noted that Visa Inc. and the Society of Payment Security Professionals offer compliance training as well. "Visa's two-day course is very technical but it's very good," he said. "And the SPSP offers a multiday course culminating with designations of the Certified PCI Security Manager."
To help ISOs and processors bring their merchant customers into PCI compliance, ProfitStars offers a comprehensive PCI education service called Gladiator that offers webinars on issues surrounding security compliance for check processing products. "We have a complete division dedicated to security compliance to better serve our clients - and explain why it's so important now," Federico said.
Payment processor TSYS Acquiring Solutions realized sales professionals had become secluded and fragmented. The company felt MLSs and ISOs needed more accessible educational, sales and technical information and that they were cloistered in a company, sector or vertical market. To remedy that, the company created the TSYS Enlightenment Program to assist professionals industrywide.
"We learned that people became well-versed in their own little silo, and they didn't even realize what their partner was doing," said Ed Dean, Market Support Manager for TSYS. "It started out as internal training, but then we found that our ISOs were having the same issues within their own staff, so we developed this program to reach out to them and assist them in training their sales reps."
The Enlightenment Program uses two-hour webinars along with full- and half-day personal training seminars from TSYS personnel to help ISOs expand their market footprints.
Webinar topics include remote deposit capture, automated clearing house, PIN-based debit, interchange, industry overviews, movers and shakers, Internet processing and information technology.
"Our goal at conferences and workshops is to help our merchant reps actually understand how to find merchants, how to talk to them, find their pain points, the players that are in a particular vertical and sales scenarios," said Karen Fisher, TSYS' Director of Client Education. "And with the feedback after the initial training, we kind of take their temperature to make sure that what they learned is helping them to be more effective."
Svoronos believes successful training is a give-and-take process. He can give his sales staff all the pertinent information, but he can't sell for them. "All of my agents' successes are based on their skill sets, yes, but on their tenacity level as well," he said.
"We can give them all the tools, but it really comes down to a tenacious desire to succeed. I can offer myself 24/7 and give you the knowledge, but I can't fuel desire."
Svoronos believes it is up to ISOs, processors and banks to keep people up to speed. "You can't leave a new agent by themselves," he said. "They may not know what to look for, and that's a classic defeatist attitude.
"It's up to me and my company to roll out new products to my MLSs, give them essential news, keep them well-fed in their brains so they understand new rules, mandates, products and services. It's up to me to do that, and if I don't give them the tools then I fail, not them. Training is not finite - it does not stop."
The payments industry, like most other businesses, will thrive only with an infusion of people bringing in fresh ideas, new technology and bold innovations.
We must embrace newcomers, inspire them to carve out careers in our sphere and support their ongoing professional growth.
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