By Jason Felts
Advanced Merchant Services Inc.
As merchant level salespeople (MLSs), you make the sales. But it's your job to keep them as well. It's often said it's easier to keep customers than replace them.
But that doesn't always hold true. Certainly no company, including Advanced Merchant Services Inc., is perfect. We make mistakes, and so will you. The question becomes: Will you go out of your way to resolve problems to retain customers?
Seven key principles should be remembered to ensure customer service.
Beginning with the application process, be sure to:
Personally install payment systems at merchant locations, and make sure they are up and running properly. Sure, most ISOs can do this over the phone.
But nothing replaces personal, professional installations from MLSs. I cannot tell you how many issues can and will be resolved by MLSs accepting responsibility for the install. Additionally, installation is a perfect time to discuss merchants' paper needs and explain to them when and how to order more paper. (Remarkably, some merchants forget about paper until they are out - or almost out - and move into hysterical mode.)
This is also an opportune time to secure referrals.
A caring mindset makes for active listening. By paying close attention and responding to the problems merchants have, you show basic respect for your customers. And you reinforce in their minds that if they have problems, you will help solve them.
And if you can't solve certain problems, you will find the people who can.
Often merchants call their MLSs to no avail. If you are too busy to return calls within 24 hours, answer your merchants' questions via e-mail, or ask your assistants to return calls.
But don't assume merchants' calls mean bad news. I recall many occasions when merchants were calling MLSs to add new store locations to their service contracts, upgrade equipment or provide referrals. The sales reps would have missed these opportunities if they had refused to return phone calls.
When is the last time you reviewed your portfolio to contact all of your $0 processing merchants? Calling $0 processing accounts to find out why they have stopped processing - or why they never started processing - can give you an immediate revenue lift and prevent attrition.
If you are notified that a merchant is being terminated because they are on the Member Alert to Control High-Risk database (which contains information on merchants who have been terminated from transaction processing for cause), or you just learned a merchant's entire batch was held, what should you do?
The answer is be honest, even when the news is tough. You will always provide better service if you tell the truth.
If you guarantee a quote within 24 hours, get the quote out in a day or less. If and when you fail to make good on your promises, apologize to merchants and offer meaningful compensation, such as a discount, free paper rolls, free shipping and so forth. Overall, only make promises you are confident both you and your company can keep.
I sent a question regarding customer service to GS Online's MLS Forum. Here was the response.
"Be available if there is a problem, concern or question, and respond to an inquiry as quickly as possible. Visit all clients in person - at a minimum of quarterly.
"Communicate any developments that could or do affect a merchant, including PCI DSS updated info.
"Make a merchant clearly understand that you are providing far more than a monthly statement. Provide free paper to accounts that warrant it. Offer add-on services - as is often said, the easiest customer to market to is the one you already have.
"A vitally important component of providing exceptional service is that your ISO/MSP can do the same. Fortunately, mine excel in both customer and tech support.
"All of this leads to very high levels of retention, especially with larger accounts; they are much less likely to have an interest in reviewing or supplying the info for another processor's bid. And if they do, they are much more likely to call you before switching."
- Robert Dickerson
"It is far cheaper and easier to maintain the accounts you have, rather than always replacing one that left with a new one. I give all my merchants free paper, and I deliver.
"Let me explain this a little more. When I give my merchants free paper, I give them enough to last three to four months at a time. I have two reasons for this.
"First, they keep in contact with me every three to four months. Second, I trade paper for referrals... .
"I tell my merchants to focus on running their businesses, and I will take care of the credit card processing. They call me for everything: billing problems, tech support, anything.
"I recently had an ISO call me because they had questions for the merchant and the merchant told them to call me. I did not have the answers, so I did a three-way call with the merchant and ISO. Point being: A little service goes a long way."
- Sonny Gartin
"I've always believed that service is the most important issue in merchant processing. This past New Year's Eve, one of my restaurants called me at 9:30 p.m. because they ran out of paper and didn't realize it was their last roll. They were desperate.
"Good thing I'm a loser and I was home instead of at a party. I drove half an hour, dropped off the paper and went back home. They told me this is the reason they throw out everyone who walks in the store peddling credit card processing."
- Rob Appel
"It seems that we sometimes forget that service is the reason that we get paid residuals. So, naturally, the better we service our accounts, the greater the longevity will be for our existing customer base, and the more referrals will flow in from happy merchants. As others have pointed out, there is nothing like a personal visit to the merchant's location.
"A smile, a handshake and a warm 'thank you for your business' goes a long way in maintaining loyalty. If you have merchants that are long distances away, a telephone call every three to four months to make sure all is well with them means a lot.
"I answer my cell phone seven days a week, even when I am in the middle of pitching a prospective new account.
"Of course I keep it very brief, and before I hang up I tell them, 'You see, as I told you, I am not here just to get you good competitive rates on your processing fees, but also to give you top-notch service. I always answer the phone promptly in case one of my merchants is having a problem with his or her credit card terminal, as I would for you.'"
- David Hanlin
"Jason, the main 'service' item I provide - besides the obvious answer all calls, return all calls promptly, et cetera - is conducting a two-times per year (and sometimes quarterly) business review.
"What I do when I land an account is show them their net effective rate with their current processor and what I believe will be their new effective rate with us. After the first three months of processing with us, I conduct a business review by pulling their statements and reporting to them how we are doing.
"In all cases, their new effective rate is lower than their previous supplier and lower than what I forecasted, as I make a habit of under promising and over delivering.
"I have been in this industry for a short two years, but all my merchants tell me that I am the only one who has ever provided this type of service for them.
"I have helped many merchants learn how to lower their costs by processing more efficiently, and they appreciate it and know I am looking out for their business."
- Niles Crum
David Felts, my father and the Vice President of Sales at AMS, is on the front lines with our sales partners every day. As such, I asked him to share a few thoughts related to service from an MLS's perspective. His remarks follow:
1. To minimize attrition: Even the most optimistic among us must admit that current economic conditions threaten the stability of our portfolios. Businesses are failing at alarming rates. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do about that.
Some of your merchants will not survive the economic tempest our nation is facing. You can, however, prevent one of the other sources of attrition.
Every day some competitor will be telling your merchants they can save money by switching their merchant account. If you are a "love 'em and leave 'em" kind of MLS, it probably won't take much of a savings to persuade them to jump ship.
If, on the other hand, you call, send a card or newsletter, or drop by to see them from time to time in an attempt to build a relationship, the odds of them being successfully seduced by a competitor radically diminish.
A wise man once told me, "The best time to kiss your wife is before some other guy does." I will take the liberty of translating that into, "The best time to service your merchants is before some other rep promises to."
If you focus only on adding new merchants without giving attention to those you already have, you will certainly find yourself in the unenviable position one day of realizing it's next to impossible to add enough new merchants each month to replace those that are leaving.
If you want to keep your merchants, show them you value them.
2. To cultivate a rich referral vein: Business owners know other business owners; chief executive officers know other CEOs. Most merchants have been disappointed by broken promises made by their current or previous processors.
Once you have proven that you are an MLS of your word and are sincerely interested in them and their businesses, you have earned the right to ask for and expect referrals.
I recommend you reward merchants with a stipend for each new merchant you acquire as a result of their referrals. But most business owners will be much more motivated by the relationship you build with them than by the money you offer them.
I have seen a single merchant produce more than 30 referrals that led to sales. I am not talking about an association or referring bank, but rather a happy merchant who loved to talk.
Finding ways to make your merchants happy and get them talking will pay rich dividends to the MLS wise enough to rise to the task. Failing to do so is like discovering a gold mine and refusing or neglecting to mine it.
That concludes my father's remarks. I'd like to thank him and the MLS Forum members who contributed to this article. In closing, remember this anonymous quote: "To my merchant, I may not have the answer, but I'll find it. I may not have the time, but I'll make it. I may not be the biggest, but I'll be the most committed to your success."
Jason A. Felts is the founder, President and Chief Executive Officer of Florida-based Advanced Merchant Services Inc., a registered ISO/MSP with HSBC Bank. From its onset, AMS has placed top priority on supporting and servicing its sales partners. The company launched ISOPro Motion, its private-label training program, to provide state-of-the-art sales tools and actively promote the success and long-term development of its partners. For more information, visit www.amspartner.com, call 888-355-VISA (8472), ext. 211, or e-mail Felts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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