First-rate ideals, first-rate performance
Henry J. Heinz (of ketchup fame) once said success consists of doing the common things of life uncommonly well. That could be the motto at FirstCard Merchant Services, a full-service payment processing provider. The company resells credit and debit card processing services in addition to check processing, gift and loyalty card, and automated clearing house (ACH) services. It caters to small and mid-sized retail, restaurant, MO/TO, and Internet-based merchants.
"There is very little 'unique' left in the products or services that the players in this industry provide," said Peter Schneider, FirstCard's Chief Executive Officer. "Beyond some new state-of-the-art technology, everyone pretty much offers a similar product set. The difference is in how it is offered and the support structure behind it.
"This is where FirstCard is unique. This industry is rife with incoherent babble and fast talking to try and get merchants to sign on the bottom line. FirstCard does it differently. Our MLSs [merchant level salespeople] tell a merchant exactly what they are going to be charged and exactly how much they are going to pay and exactly what they will expect to see on their statements."
FirstCard's strategy of presenting its offerings in a clear, concise and to-the-point manner - without fluff and without hype - appears to be a success.
Over the past year, FirstCard has made significant improvements to its programs: It developed the proprietary FirstCheck program in collaboration with CrossCheck Inc.; expanded its sales team into five new states; established a full-service health-benefit plan through Paychex Health Services; developed the FirstAid equipment-insurance and supply-replenishment program; and secured significant new financing, which will assist in even further expansions.
The company also renewed its marketing agreement with First Data Commercial Services (continuing their direct-to-processor relationship through 2009). Schneider said this allows FirstCard "to continue to provide industry-leading payment solutions to the marketplace."
Although FirstCard makes every attempt to stay competitive, Schneider sees pricing alone as nearly irrelevant.
"The market is flooded with ISOs and processors all touting the lowest pricing and the most commissions paid," he said. "We don't do that. There will always be somebody who can undercut your price by a basis point or a penny. And there will always be someone who will claim to pay more on accounts and in residuals."
The company's goal is to provide both merchants and MLSs with the highest level of support and service in the industry.
"Of course, we provide very competitive pricing and very aggressive commissions, but we pride ourselves on service," Schneider said. "The real gauge on which we measure ourselves is not how many new accounts we sign, but how low our attrition rate is.
"When merchants and MLSs leave us, it is disturbing. But it is even more satisfying when they come back to us, which happens often. When they come back and say 'It was a mistake to leave. That other company didn't provide anything they said they would,' it lets us know that we are doing our job well."
FirstCard's accomplishments - and additional funding - during the past year have helped pave the way for future growth and development. The company plans to roll out several new programs this year.
"We will be establishing a residual buyback program allowing MLSs to reap the rewards of their hard work," Schneider noted.
"We will be rolling out a program in which not only our MLSs, but our new merchants will receive prizes for working with FirstCard. We also anticipate development of a lead-generation and appointment-setting program in 2007."
But Schneider has mapped out that growth carefully. "We have a small-business mind-set, which keeps us in tune to our main client base," he said.
"When a company grows too large too fast, something is going to suffer, and that is usually the service level they provide. We want to maintain growth but manage it well. Our business model for 2007 calls for a 125% growth in both our sales team and in new merchants signed, but we don't expect many growing pains."
New sales-team members can expect a flexible work environment, a sense of ethics and a tremendous amount of support, but not a lot of micromanaging, Schneider said.
"Support is just as important for our MLSs as it is for our merchants," he said. "Our regional sales managers work very closely with a new MLS for the first couple of weeks to ensure a total understanding of products and procedures."
Getting new accounts submitted is easy. A simple three-page application and five-minute approvals keep the MLS free to sign more accounts.
"We provide new equipment to be shipped fully downloaded at no cost to the MLS, so there is no time wasted in programming.
"Once the account is up and running, the MLS will see the commission for that account deposited in their bank the following week, on time and accurately. We provide as much simplicity in the process as possible to keep the MLS doing what they do best: selling."
Schneider is proud of FirstCard's ethical dealings with merchants and agents alike. "We have paid residuals to our sales channel for over four years without one missed payment. Any discrepancies have been resolved within one pay period," he reported.
Agent payments are both upfront and residual-based. "We provide a per-account commission for each deal approved plus an escalator bonus for more accounts signed per month, which can take the per-account commission up to $450," Schneider said.
"Commissions are paid for new AmEx [American Express] and Discover accounts, new check and gift card accounts, and of course for equipment sales, leases and rentals. One hundred percent of any application or reprogramming fee goes to the MLS."
All of FirstCard's MLSs are W-2 employees. "Our MLSs are primarily cold calling on new merchants, but our business consulting method provides our MLSs with numerous referrals," Schneider said.
FirstCard's regional sales managers answer MLSs' questions, assist in merchant signings and setups, and provide hands-on support. The national sales manager handles major merchant pricing or on-site training, Schneider said. He noted the company's "three-tier service scheme" and the above-board way it deals with merchants are keys to its success.
"With our 60-day guarantee, any merchant who may be displeased with the results in the first two months can cancel, with no penalty," he said. "We do not hold merchants hostage. If we cannot provide them with what they need, we do not force them to stay."
The first tier of FirstCard's customer service approach, and the merchants' first line of defense, is the MLS. "They're business consultants," Schneider said. "They don't just sell an account and move on: They establish an ongoing relationship with that merchant." MLSs give merchants their cell phone numbers so merchants can easily contact them when issues arise.
If the MLS can't immediately deal with a problem, or it requires additional research or access to the merchant's file, the issue is passed along to the second tier - the FirstCard corporate office.
The final line of defense is the First Data customer support and technical help desk, which provides 24/7/365 technical support in multiple languages. "They're proficient in all of the terminal makes and models in the marketplace today and can troubleshoot practically any problem a merchant may have," Schneider said.
The help desk offers the FirstAid program, which Schneider said provides merchants with the "peace of mind to know that if they ever experience any problems with their terminal, we will ship a fully downloaded terminal for next-day delivery." This is so that their downtime is kept to the absolute minimum.
"We never want one of our merchants unable to conduct business, so the FirstAid program was developed to ensure this does not occur," he said.
FirstCard anticipates consistent, steady growth over the next three to five years. "We are ready to grow; we just need the right people to help us do it," Schneider said.
The company wants to be recognized for succeeding without compromising its values, providing the best service to its merchants and employees, and offering an enriching workplace where people want to stay on the job long-term.
"I would consider us very successful if those three things could be said about FirstCard," he added.
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