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Street SmartsSM:
The Truth Behind Advertising

By Ed Freedman

To advertise or not to advertise? That is the question.

At the recent Electronic Transactions Association (ETA) conference, I overheard a conversation between two employees of a credit card processing company. One guy said to the other, "We should start our own ISO. All it takes to be successful is an ad in The Green Sheet, and you're on your way."

Chills ran up my spine. I have heard this before and have even laughed about it with some of my business colleagues.

One of my associates once said, "Everyone thinks what we do is so easy, and they want to go out there and do it. I tell them, 'Watch Michael Jordan sink three pointers all night, and then go out there and chuck a ball up and see what happens.' Jordan just makes it look easy and so do many ISOs."

Let me set the record straight. It takes a lot more to be a successful ISO/MSP than just running an ad in The Green Sheet. It takes a really good ad in The Green Sheet.

Seriously, though, what constitutes a good ad? What works? What doesn't?

To find out how the 'feet on the street' answered these questions, I posted the following on the MLS forum:

"MLSs are seeing more and more ads in The Green Sheet proclaiming the latest and greatest ISOs and acquirers. What do you think of these ads?

"Are catchy phrases and eye-popping graphics grabbing your business?

"What is it about these advertisements that's making you pick up a phone and call?

"What exactly are you looking for in these ads?"

The response to these questions was overwhelming. Here are just a few:

"I think that they vary in effectiveness from 'intriguing' to 'somewhat mundane' depending on the individual ad in question. I think that catchy phrases and graphics which resonate with the sentiments of the person reading that ad may grab their attention - but not necessarily their business.

"If the ad gets them to pick up the phone and call, it is a successful ad. It is then a matter of whether the ISO can follow up successfully to convince MLSs that they have the right mix of solutions for their needs...and then deliver as promised thereafter.

"I prefer ads that include some specific details on the programs that they discuss. This way, I can make a quick determination and 'screen out' ads that wouldn't be a good match for our needs. When I look at an ad, I want to get a sense of what that company is really focused on. And I want to get a sense of the credibility of the company.

"A very professional looking, catchy ad with some salient details can certainly help with initiating a new prospective relationship, there is no question about it."

-Chris West, CDGcommerce

"After some calls with several MLSs today, the feedback seems all the same. No pretty pictures: guys with beards and acrobats in suits turn off and [are] chauvinistic. Equipment lists rather than pictures. Decent published rates on all levels: shared revenue seems popular without too much inflation of true rates.

"Good and accurate representation of up- and- running-smoothly application to the download process. Ownership/guaranteed, buyout/guaranteed; residual payment is most important of all.

"Overall, just short of the actual contract, factual and informative classified types can help 'cut to the chase.' All spoken with are tired of lengthy first contact calls, followed by contracts to review that seem to have almost nothing to do with the ad itself. All want a good home on the first shot, and don't want to waste time. Most look to the MLSs' review in this forum for the best ad from MLS to MLS. This is from casual conversations today, just some opinions.

-Q

"I prefer straightforward ads with rates disclosed. While I understand and accept the fact that an agent with more experience should get better pricing, when I see an ad that does not disclose pricing, I would be hesitant to call. If I know that other agents are receiving better rates, I wonder if the company even wants my business.

"I also realize that some agents are able to get better deals than the advertised rates, but that doesn't bother me because if an agent is able to work that out on an individual basis, I say more power to him/her. I like bonuses on existing merchant accounts because it allows a new agent to make much needed 'upfront' money.

"All said and done, I would not even make a call without researching the company within the [GS] forum and asking seasoned agents their opinion of the said company and its representatives. While I am not attracted by the flashy ISO ads, I love GO Software's retro look, Integrated Leasing's wackiness (although I don't think humor is good in an ISO ad) and any time there is a hand holding up $100 bills, I can't help but to stop and stare at it."

-Kathy Harper, Business Payment Systems

"My opinion on these ads, they are all pretty much weak. Does the ad draw me to believe that I would be an absolute fool to do business with anyone but them, regardless of price? They need to push the reps' hot buttons. What do they really want? Timely, well-paid residuals, great customer service and education. Help them, train them and PAY them."

-Rick@cellchargeca.com

"The ads in The Green Sheet ... It seems there are a lot of agents who are signed up with many companies, and they send business to whoever has the best 'deal' or 'bonus' or 'free something.' I have sent almost 99% of my business to the same place for the last 3+ yrs. I selected them for some very good reasons:

  1. They do not get involved with my leases or equipment, so I know there is no one else in my pocket.

  2. Residuals are paid on time every month (and I checked with past agents).

  3. No pressure for minimum amount of app[lication]s so I can work when I want to and not worry that I did not turn in four deals this month.

  4. They care more about the quality of the merchant and volume than the number of apps that I turn in.
"I get offers to switch to a new processor that is faster than the people I use now. And I will not switch. We are happy, and we know that the residuals are safe.

"The first person who taught me this biz, told me this is a pennies business; you line them all up and make the dollars, the hundreds and the thousands and one day the millions...it is not hard to do...One thing is there is only one motivating factor...RESIDUALS...not Equipment Sales. Residuals is what drives the car...equipment is the gas money."

-cc guy, South Florida

"I personally feel that an ad is only as effective as the company that's posting the ad. You see the same group of people advertising month after month, and while a clever ad may cause a MLS to pick up the phone, it in no way ensures a relationship. Often it appears that in our industry we don't require much 'truth in advertising.'

"Examples would include .0279 factors. Sure, 1 out of a 100, but the ad said '.0279' not 'as low as' or 'occasionally.' Guaranteed buyout on your portfolio. Try exercising that one! Guaranteed payment of residuals. I have not been paid by several well-known companies that continue to advertise in The Green Sheet.

"Guaranteed approval. I have been on a 'guaranteed approval' deal for years and have had several declined. I'm not upset, I understand, but it just appears that we could do better as an industry if the ads were truthful. The word 'guarantee' should have some meaning and backbone to it. Just my humble opinion!"

-SalesAMS

"It would certainly be an education to examine the 'typed in ads' on the Green Sheet Online. I am amazed at some of the statements, falsehoods and total misrepresentations that are made on the MLS Agent Recruiting on the Green Sheet. Apparently, the agent, ISO or sub-ISO does not know that they can be legally held liable for providing false advertising online.

"Some of these ads are so far off the wall, that they should be investigated and then reported on so that the unsuspecting MLS does not find him or herself in a very bad situation, a very bad contract and some very shady people. Thanks Ed. Keep up the great work."

-Mike Daily

"Ads that say much and deliver little are the ones that get to me. We're in a commodity business. Bankcard processing is a commodity. The price of processing is not going to vary by much. Everyone who has been in the business for [more] than a day knows about dues and assessment and interchange. The rates are the rates.

"I liken it to gasoline. You can drive all over town, and the price of regular gasoline is not going to vary by a significant amount.

"As a consumer of gasoline, if I had a choice to go to a self-service station where I had to get out of the car and pump the gas myself, or go to a full-service station where an attendant pumped the gas, checked under the hood, washed the windshield and checked the tires, and the price was relatively the same, which station do you think I would choose? Which one would you choose? People buy value and not price. Service is what sells-always has and always will.

"The MLS has to sell value and service. Prior to hitting the streets, the MLS has to decide which company (GREEN SHEET AD) will provide the level of service and support that will make me a more effective salesperson? Who supports, me, the salesman? Who gives me the tools, the training and the support to assist me in closing more sales?

"Another question is: Has the leader of the company (GREEN SHEET AD) been out on the streets, and how many deals did he close? Can he walk the walk and talk the talk or is he another perfumed prince who couldn't lead a pack of hungry dogs to a steak dinner? After wading through the ad game, and going through the ringer, there are only two or three companies that are laying it on the line for their reps. Want to guess which ones they are?"

-wareagle

In addition to those responses, my post also triggered an interesting online discussion about one ad in particular that proclaimed a $.075 transaction fee, including interchange.

"Here's a sampling: 7.5 cents including interchange, help me here, what is the downside, where is the downside? No negative intended here, just looks like steps taken on a new path and is interesting."

-Q

"I was also curious about the $.075 including interchange. I do not know exactly what that means."

-ubc

"It is impossible to offer a less than 0.075 cents including interchange. We all know interchange is 10 cents + the cost for the network. So basically it is a loss-leader type of deal.

"High mid quals and non quals, high batch fees. This is not something new. You see it in The Green Sheet [ads] all the time. People lose money in one place to make it back in the other."

-empire

And finally this one...

"We offer a great program with all costs below interchange rates! Check it out: ISO receives 95% over on all profit centers except the batch-header fee. Discount Rate. Interchange pass-through Per-Item Fee $0.05 (5 cents) including Interchange! All this with FREE EQUIPMENT!

"We give away a free NURIT 3020 or Talento to your new merchants. Free Paper. We mail out free overnight paper to your merchants. Statement Fee: $0.00. Yearly Fee: $0.00. Monthly Minimum: $0.00. Batch Header Fee: $399. Pretty simple plan. I'm looking for new agents for this ultra competitive plan. More appropriate for April 1, but oh well, it's Halloween."

-empire

As you can see, MLSs do have a sense of humor...and a sense of truth in advertising, as does The Green Sheet. I think The Green Sheet does a fabulous job showcasing all the different opportunities there are for MLSs.

I actually enjoy flipping through its pages and looking at all the new ads. It helps me keep up with all the different programs being offered in the marketplace.

Recently I saw several companies advertising that they now offer healthcare to MLSs. I learned about this by reading those ads. I felt this was a great idea and thought the ads were very appealing. So now, we offer healthcare as a direct result from something I saw in a competitor's ad.

How many ads now offer signing bonuses? It seems like the bonuses keep getting bigger because one ad is trying to beat out the last ad. In the next Green Sheet issue, I wouldn't be surprised to see someone advertising a $3,001 bonus just to offer more than the ten other $3,000 signing-bonus ads.

So what works? Here's my opinion:

  • Details.

    MLSs do not want to waste their time calling companies and reading huge packets of information just to find out the details of a program. The advertiser should put enough information in the ad to save everyone time and money.

  • Keep it clean.

    I truly believe a clean looking, professionally designed ad works. Confusing ads that include too much information on the page are not likely to work.

  • Honesty.

    Deceptive advertising will only scare MLSs away. MLSs want more companies to be honest in their ads. Deceptive ads are only trying to trick MLSs into picking up a phone. When an ad and actual program don't match, the advertiser may get a lot of MLSs calling, but it will not get many doing business with them.

At the end of the day, MLSs want to do business with honest companies that deliver on their commitments-commitments that in many cases start with what the ad promises.

Another advertising-related trend that's being seen throughout the industry is the use of special Web sites detailing sales partner programs. Ads do not answer all the common questions and issues. However, you can put a good little Web site together for this purpose.

You can also post all the documents your sales partners need to get started online such as partner registration/ agreement documents, leasing program registration documents, terminal equipment program documents and other related online applications. This eliminates the need to send out those three-ring binders that no one has the time to get through anyway.

I have seen several of these sites pop up over the past year. My only objection is that they're not all available to the public. Why the secrecy? Lay it out there for everyone to see. What are you hiding from? Do you think MLSs are not smart? Look at their MLS Forum postings that show their reactions to a below-cost per item fee including interchange.

The company doing this is now perceived as over-charging merchants in some other place. I have no idea if this is the case or not. The problem is that neither do these smart MLSs. They can't tell from The Green Sheet ad, and they want to make sure their merchants do not get "jacked."

We just did something similar when we introduced a buy rate that's clearly below interchange-1.46% (100% above). The first reaction wasn't "WOW! That's great." It was "How are you doing that? It's below interchange. What's the catch? Where are you going to make up for this?" In our case, we explained that lowering the check card fees gave us the ability to lower this rate. This was a reasonable explanation, and as a result, it answered these legitimate concerns.

In fact, every little detail of the Total Merchant Services residual program can be found on our Web site. You want to know the details. Go to www.upfrontandresiduals.com -no password required! We lay it all out. We are not hiding anything. There's no secrecy. Our ad says something, and our Web site backs it up.

So, for effective advertising, remember the following:

  1. List the details.

    An ad should inform, not imply.

  2. Be honest and truthful.

    Deception has no place in any aspect of our business.

  3. Keep it clean and concise.

    In advertising, less is usually best.

  4. Know what type of result you want.

    Does the advertiser want people to go to its Web site, call, e-mail or fax? Make sure the ad drives that result.

  5. Lay it all out.

    Even the advertiser should let its competitors see what it is doing. If the deal is not competitive in the marketplace, then change the program and make it competitive.

  6. Advertisers should (Keep It Simple, Stupid).

    Confusing people is not the goal.

Another area that troubles me (and it will be the focus of my next column) is MLS loyalty. Is there such a thing? Why is it that MLSs will pick up the phone and try out all these new, shiny looking programs just because they're offered in a new, creative-looking ad? Is there no loyalty in this business?

MLSs ask a lot from their ISO partners, and many ISOs are delivering and performing well for these MLSs and their merchants. So why do you send your business to four different places? Why do you keep trying new programs if you are happy with your primary provider?

We will delve further into this hot topic in the next issue. Look for my posting on the MLS Forum discussing MLS loyalty.

As always, I'd love to hear from you. Please send feedback on this topic (and any others) to streetsmarts@totalmerchantservices.com. Be sure to include your name and company if you want to be acknowledged.

"Many a small thing has been made large by the right kind of advertising."

-Mark Twain

I'll see you next time where the rubber meets the road.

Ed Freedman is founder and President/CEO of Total Merchant Services, one of the fastest-growing credit card merchant account acquirers in the nation. Ed is the driving force behind all business development activity as well as the execution of Total Merchant Services' marketing plan, including recruiting and training independent sales offices and establishing strategic alliance partnerships with leading vendors, so that Total Merchant Services can provide its customers with the highest quality and most reliable services available. To learn more about Total Merchant Services, visit the Web site at www.totalmerchantservices.com. To learn more about partnering with Total Merchant Services, visit www.upfrontandresiduals.com or contact Ed directly at ed@totalmerchantservices.com

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