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Street SmartsSM: MLSs Find a Niche in NAOPP

By Ed Freedman

A baby's first birthday is always a time of celebration. It's no different for fledgling organizations that make it past the initial 12-month period. On Feb. 24, 2004, the National Association of Payment Professionals (NAOPP) celebrated its one-year anniversary with a sense of pride and accomplishment and a hopeful outlook for the future.

Here is an organization whose members represent all aspects of the payment processing industry—from processors to vendors to ISOs and banks—but most of all, merchant level salespeople (MLSs).

"When we met in Tampa on Feb. 24, 2003 the room was full of various people from our industry all wanting to start something worthwhile and beneficial to all parties," said Steve Norell, President of U.S. Merchant Services and NAOPP President.

"If there was the slightest bit of disappointment, it was that most of the people in that room were not street-level salespeople. The smallest number represented the very group that had been begging for this type of organization. Despite that fact, the energy level of the room was quite high and everyone was willing to move toward the formation of this group."

By the end of that historic day, those present had accomplished the following:

  • Selected the name of the organization: National Association of Payment Professionals (NAOPP)
  • Appointed an interim board of directors and officers
  • Created a name for the feet-on-the-street sales rep: Merchant Level Salesperson (MLS)
  • Drafted a mission statement: "This organization shall exist for all those in the payment processing industry, by providing education, benefits, liaison/representation, certification and representation."
"Considering the distance that many had to travel and the various personalities that were in the room, it was quite an accomplishment that we were able to create those four items," Norell said.

Several months later, NAOPP went through several changes, common to many startup organizations. Some of the board members and officers opted not to participate aggressively and were replaced by other very capable individuals.

In October of 2003, NAOPP had its first coming out "party" at the Southeast Acquirers' Association meeting in Orlando, Fla. The meeting was well attended and informal. This format allowed MLSs to participate in a Q & A with industry professionals from the equipment and management sides of the business. In addition to the meeting, there were numerous individuals who joined NAOPP for the nominal fee of $25. Everyone left with a positive attitude and in possession of a little more knowledge.

"Since that meeting we have been asked many times: What has NAOPP accomplished today, and what good will it do me to join?" Norell said. "To that, we say this to all MLSs—since the first MLSs hit the street they were seldom recognized, responded to or allowed to drink at the industry well. For a minimal $25, this is your opportunity to let your voice be heard with hundreds and, hopefully, thousands of other MLSs."

NAOPP is also working diligently to offer benefits and educational products. NAOPP recently agreed to the following, (this information is also available on the Web site, www.naopp.com):

  • Low cost legal consultation/representation. This will allow MLSs to send contracts to attorneys familiar with our industry and make suggestions and corrections for a nominal fee.
  • 401(k) plan. This program is specifically designed for the one-man operation all the way up to medium-sized offices. For all 1099s, it's the opportunity to put away money for retirement. The average MLS is usually so wrapped up in running the business, this area is seldom given the attention it deserves and requires.
  • Health insurance. A plan that allows participation of one person or 100 people. Some additional benefits in the works for members of NAOPP are:
  • Freight discounts
  • Trade discounts (POS terminals, paper, etc.)
  • Usage of NAOPP logo for additional credibility
  • Web-based testing for association registration and certification
At the urging of NAOPP, ETA announced that any MLS could attend one day of the ETA Annual Meeting & Expo held in Las Vegas in April for $185. On the heels of that announcement, NAOPP's board of directors announced that the organization would pay $85 of the $185.

This was a huge benefit for MLSs who have always wanted to go to ETA but couldn't afford it. This offer also included the breakout sessions. Last but not least, NAOPP hosted a cocktail reception at the MGM during the ETA convention and welcomed new and existing members.

What do the feet on the street think of NAOPP's noteworthy efforts to have its voice heard? I recently posted the following on the GS Online's MLS Forum:

"How many of you have joined NAOPP? What benefits have you received from your membership? Would you recommend that other MLSs join NAOPP? How does this association differ from others you are affiliated with?"

What transpired was phenomenal—so many diverse opinions on this topic were voiced on the MLS Forum. As of the day I submitted this column to The Green Sheet for publication, more than 30 posts had been made. This is what the MLS Forum is all about!

Here's a sampling of the answers I received:

"I think NAOPP is a great idea, but it doesn't have any benefits yet that I have seen. I know some of the people putting it together, and there are things in the works, but I have not seen anything yet.

"I think most MLSs and small offices would love to see benefits from some organization: insurance information, equipment discount or promotions—something. As of yet, I have not seen anything. Maybe Steve Norell or one of the other board members would like to elaborate more on NAOPP's future plans." —ccguy

"I was at the inaugural meeting for NAOPP in Florida and left the meeting with the thought, 'Well this was a waste of time traveling across the country.' I have received nothing regarding membership or even so much as a call from anyone regarding NAOPP.

"In my opinion, the idea of an organization like NAOPP is a great thing, but you and I and everyone in this forum knows that 'great ideas' and a buck maybe gets you a Cup-O'-Joe. It takes manpower and time (a lot of free time) to build such an organization. I honestly could not recommend anyone to join; again, what would be 'joined?' What does someone get for joining?

"And just my two cents if anyone is listening ... if I had the time or if I were asked:

1) I would make the association dues a flat fee (whatever) per year, but as soon as it costs something, half the crowd will bow out.

2) (if it makes it to a second) I would concentrate on a medical insurance program, this seems to be a hot topic all over the country, especially with premiums only rising. A group with over 100 members would carry some weight with the insurance companies.

3) Training, training, training. You can never have too much knowledge or education. This industry is alive and changing everyday. We are working in the 'world of e-commerce' not the 'town of e-commerce,' and as it's said, 'Knowledge is Power.'" —Steven Peisner

"I am very optimistic of the benefits of NAOPP. There is a lot of groundwork being done behind the scenes by people who don't have time to go to the bathroom, let alone run a nonprofit organization for free. I look at the strides of the organization so far that is laying down a solid foundation, instead of blowing their wad, a flash in the pan. I see this philosophy work in my company—earning the extra income one transaction at a time.

"In the beginning, I was starving. Now, with a solid portfolio base, my family and I have everything we've ever wanted. And it will be a lot harder to dismantle because it was built one brick at a time.

"I know that I am looking forward to the benefits that will be rolled out, but these will not be instant gratification benefits. I think the naysayers are looking for some kind of instant payoff. Would it benefit MLSs if you offered a 401(k) plan that you couldn't get as a 1099-employee? Would you like group health insurance at a reduced cost and protection from being singled out for rate increases? Would you like your name on a Web site, where you can point a merchant to show you are part of an industry organization with a worldwide presence?

"Would you like to gain product knowledge, not just now or at one meeting that cost you money to go to, but ongoing 'meat and potatoes' training? Certification? Would you like reduced legal expenses, negotiated for members?

"Would you like an organization that is looking for the BEST of the above, or do you need it NOW, just for the sake of having something? These are all benefits that I need for a long time, not just this fleeting second. I want some thought put into them before the decisions are made. The best part is much of the work has been done. (A side note: I filmed the SEAA NAOPP meeting. Some came opposed and armed to sabotage the meeting. If the shoe fits, wear it!)" —Desdinova

"The following is a quote of a post I made awhile back. I still feel it fits this question, and to me, answers the naysayers like Mr. Peisner above:

'Some time ago, someone posted a comment about investing $25 in an organization that has no guarantee of being any benefit to them at this time. They commented that paying for an unknown is not a good idea. Maybe not in those words, though I liken this to buying stock in a company.

'They have a prospectus that outlines past history, but no guarantee on future earnings. They put out forward-looking statements forecasting future earnings. When you buy a stock, you hope the forecasts are accurate, your stock appreciates and you make some money. The investment here ranges from small to millions, depending on the individual or organization purchasing the stock.

'To me NAOPP's prospectus is something like the following: past history: no benefits, education, support or backing for MLSs. Forward looking: (My opinion and hopes here) health benefits, education, certification, discounted or free legal advice, and more that the MLS membership decides is important. Investment: $25. Now that's an investment to me. An investment in my future without any downside risk other than the initial $25.'

"Since this post, NAOPP has moved forward in getting discounted legal advice for its members, a 401(k) plan, and has other benefits in the works. I am still 100% behind this association and believe if we had even 25% of the MLSs in the country in it, we would have a VERY strong organization." —gmartin

"And just for the record, my comments are fact, not speculation. Ed Freedman asked the MLS Forum for their opinions, and at this point today—based upon what I know and have personally experienced—if asked the questions in his post, what I posted would be my answers.

"This does not necessarily make me a 'naysayer' of NAOPP. I am all for an organization that benefits the street rep. My opinion of NAOPP is positive, though I will stand on what I said as I have received nothing from this organization. I am a member of a few different organizations; I attend meetings and offer my time and services to them. I would gladly do the same if called upon by NAOPP." —Steven Peisner

"I think the point Steven is making here is that after a year of waiting for NAOPP to be really something big and beneficial for all, nothing is being offered or is available as of today. The only thing the Web site shows from the past year are meetings, a mission statement, the board of directors and a place to give $$. Their mission is to serve, but how and when? That leads to the questions, 'What is the value of joining today? What services are available today?'

"NAOPP is going to be a great association in the future. What can help speed up the process of providing products and services is for everyone to register and become a member. When NAOPP has hundreds of members registered, that could mean negotiating power with vendors in providing services like legal, medical, dental and so on at big savings for all. I will be registering and paying my $25 tomorrow to provide my support.

"What could really help out a lot and answer a lot of questions is if the Web site would provide more information, news, announcements, plans and action dates so we can be better informed. I think everyone in this forum should go to NAOPP's site and become a member today! There is strength in numbers and we can all show our support." — rhendrix76

"I attended the first meeting in Tampa in February 2003 and again last Sept in Orlando. I consider myself very lucky to have met Steve, Larry, Bill, Carmen, Andy, Neil, Jared, Henry, Cory, Cary, Greg and Gary. Please forgive me for anyone I might have forgotten. They all have done a great job, without pay (hotels, airfare, time). Do I wish NAOPP were up and running today? Absolutely.

"As Gary has mentioned, it's about the future. At the first meeting when it came time to vote on the officers and directors, we were all ready to make it happen. Larry (Steve's partner) said we better make it interim. Little did I know at that time how big that would be.

"My point: Every decision that has been made had to be made so that everyone would be happy (i.e. nonmembers). NAOPP needs everyone in this forum to join and have their voice heard." —Scott

"Since this post I have become a member—so what do I do next?" —Steven Peisner

Now that's what I call dialog! Kudos to those professionals who took this opportunity to exercise their right to be heard! From the posts, it sounds like there is a strong need and desire to see NAOPP succeed.

There also appears to be a concern about the progress NAOPP is making. From my conversations with Steve Norell, it appears NAOPP is here to stay. I also think NAOPP is already making an impact.

Organizers and members are building on efforts made by others in the industry; some of these efforts, while not immediately accepted, have proven invaluable over time.

Let me pose some questions: Where did the term "MLS" come from? Why was the MLS Forum created? How did ETA University come about? Where did "Street Smarts" find its beginnings? All these elements are derived from the need for a place where the MLS viewpoint can be discussed.

Yes, NAOPP is in its infancy. Yes, there is still much to accomplish, but with your support and support from the industry, the vision of NAOPP can be realized.

Remember, if a small group of forward-thinking industry leaders didn't found the Bankcard Services Association (BSA) years ago, there would be no ETA as we know it today. Let's all get on board with NAOPP. Let's continue to engage in a fight worth fighting. United we stand.

Bottom line: Every MLS must join this organization. Help give NAOPP the strong voice it needs to get things done. I believe we can make the difference, as I believe in Steve Norell's words:

"It has not been easy but nothing worthwhile ever is," he said. "We currently have a membership of several hundred and it continues to grow each day. "

For all MLSs reading this column I put this challenge out to you: Pay your $25, take a chance and be part of something great. What have you got to lose? In return, you will receive benefits, education and the promise of having your voice heard along with industry giants."

One final note, if you want to join NAOPP, take advantage of the extraordinary offer co-hosted by "Street Smarts" and detailed in a recent article: "'Streets Smarts' Gets Smarter," The Green Sheet, May 10, 2004, issue 04:05:01, and in my last column.

Submit a "success story" about how a "Street Smarts" column inspired you to act and helped you achieve some success to StreetSmarts_Feedback@greensheet.com and The Green Sheet will buy your first year's membership to NAOPP. Now there's no reason why every MLS shouldn't become part of this worthy organization!

Look for my next post on the MLS Forum. As always, your opinions and support are greatly appreciated. Please be sure to include your name and company affiliation with your MLS Forum responses for recognition.

You can also send your thoughts on this and any other hot topic to streetsmarts@totalmerchantservices.com .

"It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself."
- Eleanor Roosevelt

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. Freedman 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 Freedman directly at ed@totalmerchantservices.com .

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