Life goes on during the COVID-19 crisis, but not as usual for most societies around the globe. The disease continues to be a moving target, with cases flaring and subsiding and flaring again in various regions of the United States. Significant differences of opinion regarding everything from testing, to treatment, to protective gear are contributing confusion to what is already a stressful situation. Yet in the business world, many people have put their feelings aside and come up with creative ways to adapt and be helpful.
To spotlight how leaders in our industry are charting a path forward at this trying time, we queried members of The Green Sheet Advisory Board to ascertain how they are balancing safety and economic needs for their own companies, their merchants and partners, and the wider community. They also weighed in on guiding lights the payments community can keep in mind going forward.
In our July 27 and Aug. 10 issues, we published insights from a portion of the members who answered the following questions:
The fourth and final group of insights will be featured in our Sept. 14 issue. We appreciate all the busy professionals who shared their informed perspectives for this series.
1. Elite Merchant Solutions is fortunate to have long-term employees with the average tenure being over five years. This is something I am very proud of as this also includes our W2 sales force, which as everyone knows, has notoriously high turnover. When factoring only our administration, customer service and tech support the average tenure is nearly double that of the company as a whole. We operate more like family and care for our team members as we would for our families.
As a company, we have gone over and beyond what the guidelines are for returning to the office with respect to sanitizing and maintaining a safe work environment. Additionally, we have enough space that we were able to move our team members around, so they all have well over the recommended social distancing guidelines. We truly never had to balance safety versus economic recovery because we were able to move our salespeople out immediately to work out of their homes.
Fortunately, we have the technology and systems that allowed for a seamless transition. One thing I found interesting was most of our team wanted to come back into the office rather than work from home. We had several calls related to returning to the office so we could gauge everyone's comfortability, and the response was overwhelmingly wanting to come back, especially with all the safety measures we had in place.
2. We did several things for our merchants to help during this difficult time; however, I will list the two most substantial offerings. The first thing we decided to do was offer a contactless payment option at no charge for those merchants that did not have one already. The second thing we did was offer pass-through pricing with zero markups in any category for 60 days and, in some cases, 90 days. We did not do this for all merchants due to the fact that many merchants were not nearly as affected by COVID-19, and some merchants actually saw their business increase. Most of our retail and restaurants received this offer and were very appreciative.
3. Elite Merchant Solutions has been in business for over 18 years, and it is our strong belief that you must give back to the communities and those that are less fortunate. Elite partnered with an organization a personal friend of mine runs to feed the homeless. We stepped up our donations during this difficult time, not just monetarily but actually helping feed the homeless. It is one thing to just write a check and that helps, but it is entirely different to go down and deliver the food and serve those who are in need. I was pleased that some of our team felt comfortable doing this given the fear of COVID-19.
4. COVID-19 was a big wake-up call for everyone in the world. Nobody was prepared for something like this with all the shutdowns and mandates bestowed upon us. Restaurants, retailers, airlines and hotels, to name a few that were thriving by an extremely robust economy, were brought to their knees in many cases and are still in serious trouble. Some say the world will never be the same as we knew it prior to COVID-19, but that is debatable.
One thing for certain is businesses like ours need to be prepared for things that are out of our control and come upon us out of nowhere, such as a pandemic. Most business owners understand there are times when the economy is booming and other times when the economy is in recession. It is not a matter of if each will happen, but rather when. When something like the current pandemic comes into play which none of us have experienced to this magnitude in our lifetime, we realize life can change on a dime, so to speak.
I believe companies now more than ever will be more cautious and maintain heavier cash reserves to weather whatever storm lies ahead. Further, businesses that will remain strong during and after this crisis will make the appropriate adjustments with respect to the new world. These adjustments will be analyzing efficiencies, unnecessary redundancies and technological synergies to be able to operate most efficiently in a hostile environment.
What a crazy and unprecedented few months, which of course, is an understatement. Unless your company is Zoom, Peleton or few others, this pandemic has created significant issues on your merchants' finances, profitability and caused CEOs and CFOs to evaluate their credit card processing programs. Some companies in the beginning months of the virus dropped to literally $0 in sales; merchant statements that were "hiding" monthly and PCI fees became more transparent to the finance teams.
While merchants' earnings are being severely affected by decreased spending — so are ours, whether we are the processor, ISO and/or agent. Overall, portfolio valuations have dropped significantly. Some ISOs and agents I've spoken with were down as much as 75 percent in March/April. Now many of my friends in the business are seeing their merchant portfolios rebound month over month.
How do we move forward in this unprecedented business environment? We must educate our merchants, continue to diversify our portfolios and offer a suite of processing options. How do we, as a company, strike a balance between safety and economic recovery with our sales teams and/or merchant base? One, our company and our people are now, like most of America, using the phone, Zoom, Webex, etc., for our meetings. The term "meeting," which used to be thought of as a physical interaction between merchant and ISO/agent, is now virtual. In many ways, I think it has been beneficial in the time management sense; not wasting time driving to physical meetings has saved hours per week, adding more productivity to our busy schedules.
The economic and human impacts of recent months have been devastating. But rather than live in the past, let's look forward. Let's set the foundation for the coming months and years by embracing the technological changes in payments and the cultural evolution of our society. This is the time to reset, plan, educate and build. Now is the time to educate CEOs, CFOs and independent business owners on many evolving aspects of credit card processing that will help them save money and satisfy their customers' desire for more technology-driven processing.
How have we as company worked within our community to give back? The quick answer is education. Our corporate culture and sales team are more than ever working to educate and share knowledge with our merchants. When was the last time our agents reached out proactively to speak to any existing merchant? Now is the time, especially because people have time to speak as most are still working from their home offices. Help them understand hidden processing fees, PCI, and how to combat phishing; set up an online portal if they don't have one, and set up mobile payments via smartphone, among other options.
Put yourself in the shoes of business owners who are contending with staggering unemployment, PPP loan documents, rent due while businesses are closed, employees and family members falling ill, people's spirits flagging under restricted contact, and more. And you want to sell credit card processing amid all of this? Yes. You won't be foolish if you call with empathy and endeavor to teach and help find ways to evolve the merchant's credit card processing.
Credit card transactions are not going away. However, the payments industry will be transformed by new consumer behaviors and new merchant processing trends. Stay on top of these trends. Speak to your merchants and get their feedback, and they will share information with you that addresses their concerns.
The guiding principle is the Golden Rule: treating others as you want to be treated. During this difficult time of the virus, it is best not to sell as you ordinarily would. Nobody wants to be aggressively sold when their companies are really hurting. Adapt, be respectful and aware of the new normal, and continue to educate, offer new opportunities and serve as a trusted resource for merchants. This is the only way to progress and create real value to ensure your merchants' success as well as yours in the payments industry.
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