The Electronic Transactions Association's Certified Payments Professional program is nearing its three-year anniversary. While the program has been both praised and criticized in various circles within the industry, the ETA expects that, by the end of 2014, 1,000 sales professionals will be ETA CPP accredited, a significant milestone for a program that many industry pundits said would never succeed.
The ETA CPP is designed to raise the level of professionalism mainly among ISOs and merchant level salespeople (MLSs). To receive the ETA CPP designation, agents have to pass a comprehensive, written examination. Testing is administered twice a year, in June and December. Castle Worldwide Inc. conducts the examinations at over 375 facilities in cities throughout the United States.
The test costs $350 and, if passed, the credential lasts for a period of three years, at which time individuals must take the test again to be reaccredited. (Agents can also retain the ETA CPP designation by continuing their education through ETA-approved classes and participation at ETA events.)
To be eligible for the program, agents must have one year of industry-related experience combined with a high school diploma, associate or bachelor's degree; alternatively, individuals with three years of industry-related work experience are also eligible to take the test.
Jason Oxman, Chief Executive Officer at the ETA, said the ETA CPP is "doing phenomenally well as a resource for the industry." As the industry's only credentialing program, the ETA CPP is being run professionally, has a robust educational and testing infrastructure, and is succeeding in its goal of raising the level of sales professionalism, he added.
Oxman said agents are using the ETA CPP designation as a competitive differentiator. "Payments companies are requiring their employees to pursue the ETA CPP credential because they know it helps set them apart from competitors who may not have that certification," he stated.
Oxman added that certified agents are able to leverage the credential to gain new business. "We have heard countless stories from ETA CPPs that they are successful in bringing on new customers who are impressed by the ETA CPP designation," he said.
Andrew Goranson, Sales Manager at Omaha, Neb.-based U.S. Merchant Payment Services LLC, was in the first ETA CPP graduating class. He is one of only four individuals in the state of Nebraska listed on the ETA's directory as ETA CPP certified. (One of the others is his boss, Bill Fisher.)
Goranson said he took the test as a way to differentiate himself from the competition. However, he doesn't think the designation has helped him close more deals. "What's kind of funny is that people look at it and say, 'Oh, that's cool.' People don't really care. … So I really can't say I've gained a lot by having it. It's more of a pride thing, if that makes any sense."
In fact, it does. Goranson, who calls himself a payments "lifer," spoke with enthusiasm about his role as an essential provider of payment services and "fighting the good fight for merchants." When he received his ETA CPP certificate, he was proud of his accomplishment.
Goranson said a visitor to his office once remarked on the certificate hanging on the wall as a "Good Housekeeping stamp of approval." He added, "I'm like, 'Yeah, you know. It is.' It just means I know what I'm talking about."
Goranson recalled his ETA CPP experience in an overall positive light. Back in 2011, he thought test preparation materials were lacking but that the test itself was comprehensive and challenging. "There were some questions that there was no way I would have known the answers if I was an agent working at a big boiler room type operation," he said.
But since taking the test and receiving the certification, Goranson has not received any follow-up communication from the ETA. "I'm diligent about checking email," he said. "But I haven't seen like, hey, this class is in your area or an online class."
Oxman responded to Goranson's criticism with an acknowledgment that there is always room for improvement. "We always appreciate that kind of feedback," he said. "We do have a number of communications vehicles we use to reach out. But obviously we can always do a better job. And it sounds like, in the case of this particular ISO, we have some more outreach that we need to do."
Oxman noted that the ETA sends out notices of upcoming programs and the availability of online information, as well as regular newsletters to ETA CPPs.
Another criticism leveled at the program by ISOs is the continuing lack of awareness of the ETA CPP program among merchants. According to Oxman, the ETA is engaged in various initiatives to raise awareness of the ETA CPP program in the merchant community.
"We've done partnerships with retail associations to advertise the ETA CPP program," Oxman said, along with outreach to the media and educational programs conducted in conjunction with the four regional acquirer tradeshows.
"In fact, you can get ETA CPP continuing education credits from attending educational programs at the regional shows," Oxman said. "So we make sure to extend the program broadly."
The program is also being constantly updated. Oxman said one new educational module involves data security compliance, while another new focus is on mobile payments. "We're really making the program relevant to any topic that would be important to a payments professional or a merchant customer," Oxman said. "That's a very important focus."
Bill Pirtle, former StreetSmartSM columnist and President of C3ET Inc., has been an outspoken critic of the ETA CPP program. "I panned it because I didn't think it went far enough," he said. "I still don't think it goes far enough."
Pirtle believes the program lacks the proper framework. He said newbies to merchant sales should be properly trained at the outset of their careers and then take the test to gain certification; only then should they begin interactions with merchant prospects. "If you were required to test even before you saw your first customer, I think it would cut down a lot on the people that are the bad apples in the industry," he said.
The ETA's stipulation that agents must have industry experience before taking the test means agents are given time to develop "bad habits," according to Pirtle. The typical newbie comes in off the street after seeing an advertisement promising a six-figure income; that newbie is then given a cursory walk-through of the selling process before he or she is unleashed on merchants. "And that's not a good way, in my opinion, of having it done," Pirtle said.
Pirtle's experience as an insurance agent in his home state of Michigan showed him the way it should be done. "I had to take a test with an independent company that was accredited by the insurance commission for the state of Michigan," Pirtle said. "And I had to take a three-week training course." The training reinforced the importance of being ethical.
Pirtle translated that into payment terms. "Don't price somebody so low that you can't feed your family and you have to quit in a few months, and then your customers have no one to call," he said. "That's not being ethical."
Pirtle published Credit Card Processing for Sales Agents and a companion study guide in 2012. He said many ETA CPPs have used the book and study guide to prepare for the test and envisions a combination of comprehensive study materials with a professional training program on the lines of the popular Field Guide Seminars, created by Field Guide Enterprises LLC founder Mark Dunn, that would teach newbies the basics. Then have them get ETA CPP accredited before joining ISOs and writing accounts.
"You cover the nuts and bolts and let the ISO finish it, separate from the ETA, but just have the ETA say, 'Ok, this guy is ready to go.'" Pirtle said. "It is wise to let ISOs finish the training process because every ISO wants their agents to sell in different ways. If you try to do something that is too cookie cutter, then it's great for one company, but then somebody else will think they have to retrain them."
Goranson has seen it all in his 12 years in the industry. "I have heard so many horror stories, … the abuse that has happened to merchants," he said.
Goranson formerly worked for what he called a "big-box processor," the acquiring equivalent of a big-box retailer, where the business only wanted "bodies" for inside sales. It became a revolving door of reps attracted by the signing bonus. They would tell merchants anything just to make their quota of deals and then bail for another processor.
"So they jump all over," Goranson said. "They make all these promises [to merchants] which they know they will never stick around to follow up on, or follow through on. And then they hit them with leases that the merchant may or may not have known fully what they were getting into."
Goranson related how one merchant received a call from a "Slick Willy from California" who sold her a 48-month lease on a standard terminal for $50 a month. "It's awful," he said. "It's like, how do you sleep at night?"
Another scenario has out-of-state agents flying into a new territory. "They're just feet on the street running around and making promises and then getting back on a plane," Goranson said. "Maybe they open one or two [accounts], then leave, and they are gone, never to be seen or heard from again."
Goranson believes there are more than a few crooked ISOs and MLSs in business. "I know in every industry there's always going to be some bad apples, but I think this industry more so than others," he said. "It has kind of the seedy reputation because there are so many agents that will just turn and burn."
It is this type of unprofessional behavior that contributed to a political climate where the flawed Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010 could get passed into law. ISOs and MLSs who care about the industry might want to ask themselves what future regulatory action the industry will face if it isn't cleaned up.
Pirtle had an answer: "If you turn it over to the feds, you get Dick Durbin." Oxman added the U.S. Department of Justice's anti-free market Operation Choke Point action to the menu. From Oxman's viewpoint, the solution is self regulation. "I do think the ETA CPP program is an important counter to Operation Choke Point and other government efforts to regulate our industry," he said.
Oxman therefore stressed that conscientious ISOs and MLSs can do themselves and their industry a favor by becoming ETA CPP certified. "It's the old rising tide lifts all boats argument," he said. "The more professional our industry is, the more advanced our industry is, the better our industry's reputation is. That's better for everybody. And that's the whole idea behind the ETA CPP program."
As a nonprofit trade association, the ETA has no authority to enforce best practices. This is seen by some as a weakness of the ETA CPP – without a regulatory or enforcement mechanism, such as what the Department of Insurance and Financial Services for the state of Michigan provides in that market, the ETA's program will never have "teeth."
But ISOs and MLSs can give it teeth simply by participating. "Our member companies are investing in ETA, investing in the ETA CPP program, because they do want the government to stay out of their businesses and not dictate how to do business and not dictate the terms of business," Oxman said. "I do think that the ETA's investment in the ETA CPP program and our education and outreach programs does send a very powerful signal to the government that the payments industry takes industry self regulation and professionalism very seriously."
It is safe to say that most readers of The Green Sheet conduct themselves with professionalism and ethics. In fact, reading this and other industry publications is evidence that agents seek to better themselves as professionals and provide the best possible service to merchants.
But not all agents adhere to such high standards. Those who knowingly defraud merchants are not likely to become ETA CPP certified anytime soon. "I tell people even if I don't get their business, 'Hey, at least do it with a CPP,'" Goranson said. "'Don't do business with anybody that doesn't have the CPP. At least you're going to be working with somebody that has some moral compass.'"
Even if the ETA CPP could use improvements in communication with its designates and marketing the credential to the merchant community, the whole debate might boil down to a simple question: Do ISOs and MLSs want to be associated with professionals who take their jobs seriously and are dedicated to providing services in an ethical manner or with unaccredited agents who might be as dodgy as the fine print in some merchant contracts?
It is a question all sales professionals must answer for themselves. The next testing window begins December 2014.
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