Friday, January 13 2023
In this industry, you will often hear the words “merchant sales agents,” “Member Service Providers,” and “Independent Sales Organizations” used in a similar context, as if all three of these things are the same. The truth is that these terms actually refer to distinct roles in the credit card processing business. If this seems confusing to you, don't worry; all of these terms will be explained in this article, as well as their relationships to the credit card associations. We will also go over how you might go about becoming a merchant services ISO or an MSP.
After we've sorted all of that out, we'll go over what the advantages and disadvantages are of working in the industry as each of these roles. Getting an idea ahead of time of what each of these entails will hopefully save you from making a lot of mistakes early on in your business ventures.
What Every Term Means - First of all, let's get everything perfectly clear by defining the terms that we've mentioned so far:
ISO (Independent Sales Organization) – This is basically the credit card processor, the company that serves as the middle man between the credit card companies and the merchant. It will often provide terminals to the merchants, as well as tech support, training, and customer service. Another common term for this is “merchant service company.”
MSP (Member Service Provider) – ISO is a term often used by Visa, and so MSP is basically MasterCard's version of this. They both mean roughly the same thing. However, to make things a little more obscure, MasterCard also uses the term ISO, but it means something different. Basically, in their case, an ISO offers services that are not processing and transaction services, like customer service and lead generation. For our purposes, though, don't worry too much about these subtle distinctions. They are basically the same thing. For the sake of simplicity, let's just assume that we're including MSPs when we use the term “ISO” from now on.
Sales Agent – This role is completely different from the above mentioned roles. A merchant services agent is a third party that sells the services of merchant services ISOs and MSPs. Since merchant services companies often like to concentrate on processing credit cards and offering POS solutions, they will contract sales agents to find merchants to work with. A sales agent doesn't have to pay the high association fees like an merchant services ISO does, but he can't do business in his own name and have a merchant services ISO program with an ISO or MSP company.
What is the Relationship Between an ISO / MSP / Sales Agent and the Processing Banks? - You probably realize that merchant services ISOs are not banks, and that these organizations need banks to ultimately perform the transactions. Every merchant services ISO will need a sponsoring bank, one who is a member of Visa and MasterCard's respective associations. In practice, these banks will usually not take on small merchant service companies, and actually most merchant services ISOs use larger ISOs as intermediaries between them and the banks.
A merchant services ISO program can also have several sponsor banks. Though this can be extra costly, it also gives merchant services ISOs the advantage of being able to take on different kinds of merchants. For example, some banks might be averse to what they see as “high-risk” businesses, while others are not (though these usually charge higher fees).
By the way, these sponsoring banks don't really need merchant services ISOs at the end of the day. They could cut out the middle men and sell directly to merchants if they wished, but most of these companies prefer to focus their energies on processing transactions and don't want to bother with customer service and other issues.
If you're curious about what acquiring bank a given ISO uses, simply check out their website. They are actually required to make this information public, and it will usually be apparent in the footer of the page.
Now, how about sales agents? Well, agents are indeed registered with the credit card associations, but of course it is much less complex and expensive than it is for ISOs. Sales agents are basically contractors and the ISOs that they work with usually take care of the heavy lifting when it comes to paperwork.
How Do ISOs Go About Registering With Visa and MasterCard? - If you're an ISO, you'll have to swim through a rough sea of bureaucracy before your business can start processing credit cards. First, you need to find a bank that is a member of the credit card associations—usually both, but sometimes one—and you need to show the bank that you know what you're doing.
The banks will have to put you through a vetting process before the Associations are comfortable taking you on. You will usually have to submit all kinds of information on your business, and what type of business you are running, whether it is a “high risk” business, and what sort of services you provide to customers can all be a factor.
Usually, the bank and credit card companies will want to see:
After all of that is squared, you'd be required to pay $5,000 for each of the credit card associations. This is a yearly fee, by the way, and your application gets reevaluated every year as well. By contrast, an agent pays a bit of pocket change—maybe $50 once a year—to stay in business.
Should You Be an ISO or a Sales Agent? Which is Better? - Now, you might be curious about what path to take when it comes to your merchant services business. Should you become an ISO for merchant services, or take the safer and cheaper route and become a merchant services agent? Really, it comes down to your revenue. Do you have the sufficient merchant volume to be able to afford all of the crazy fees that ISOs have to pay? Then maybe it would be worth the trouble for you. If not, you should probably stick to the path of a sales agent, at least until you have more capital.
Becoming an ISO might seem really expensive and complicated to you right now, so you might be wondering why you would even want to become one. Well, basically you have the potential to make way more money. As a merchant services ISO, you are working directly with the processing banks (or at least with a larger ISO that is working with the banks), so you get a very low price in terms of transaction costs because there are less middle men between you and the bank. Your profit margins are higher than that of a merchant services sales agent. Merchant services sales agents get less of a share and they also have higher fees to deal with. It's like the difference between wholesale and retail, to give a somewhat awkward analogy.
However, not everything is rainbows and sunshine when it comes to being a merchant services ISO. There is a lot of responsibility and a lot of bank fees to dodge, things that sales agents don't really worry about. For example, you would need to watch out for so-called minimum processing fees. Basically, these are fees that the bank will charge you if you don't make a certain amount of transaction fees. Even worse, some banks will increase these fees year after year, and you will lose your residuals if you can't keep up. In fact, you might even have to pay a penalty out of your own pocket!
In order to avoid these minimum fees, you need to have a substantial portfolio of merchants. The minimum threshold that you are required to meet may be thousands of dollars, and since you're making pennies per transaction, you're going to need a huge volume of transactions. This is why it's not very wise to become an ISO if you have no experience in the business and no clients yet. It is just too risky.
As mentioned, the bank can also decide to increase the minimum every year, so that you're constantly trying to catch-up. This can be bad news for you because you can lose everything that you worked for. It's hard to escape having minimum fees of some kind, but steer clear from the kind of agreement that increases it every year if you can.
There are also some companies that will require you to sign up a certain minimum amount of new merchants per month, or you could lose all of your residuals. Don't sign up for such a deal, either, or you could see all of your income disappear quickly through no real fault of your own.
What We Have Learned - What's the best way to get started, then? Well, like anything else, that really depends on you and where you are with your business. If you're starting from square one, it's advisable to avoid the risks of becoming an ISO, and to simply stick to being a sales agent until you have decent enough income. There's something to be said about gaining experience and learning the business as well. No matter what you do, make sure to read every single contract before you sign anything so that you can avoid being taken for a ride. Don't jump into anything until you are ready. If you're not confident enough to negotiate with sponsor banks, then don't become an ISO just yet and spend some time as a sales agent building up your portfolio. Take things slow and you will avoid costly mistakes.
10 Things Your ISO Partner Should Provide
Merchant services such as POS systems and credit card processing are an invaluable part of any retail business, and as such the job of a merchant service company is critical. The role that the merchant sales agents of these companies play is just as important, as they are the intermediaries that make all of these deals work. If you are a merchant services agent, you are going to need a partner company that is on your side, or else you are not setting yourself up for success, and you are bound to disappoint your customers as well.
As a merchant services sales rep, you're running a business, so it's actually your responsibility to make sure that you have everything that you need to get the job done. Part of that responsibility encompasses choosing a merchant services company that you would be proud to be partners with. In business, relationships are everything, and you need to choose the kind of relationship that will benefit all parties involved, or else it won't be sustainable. Because of this, it is important to “shop around” and make sure that you have carefully examined the terms that you will be working with.
Not all companies will be worth it because they may be trying to get you to push a shoddy product or to try to sell way above market price, so you must choose carefully. There are a few key things that you should keep an eye out for that will indicate a promising choice, and ideally the company that you choose as your partner should exhibit all of these traits and provide you with all of these resources. Let's take a look at them closely to get a better idea of what your business will require:
1) A Win-Win Partnership
Of course, a business (even yours) will always act in its own self-interest, so agreements will often be skewed at least slightly in the favor of the merchant service company that you're working with. The point is to carefully review the terms and make sure that they are at least fair before you go ahead and sign up. It may seem like overkill, but you might even want to hire a specialized lawyer to look over the paperwork if you feel like you might miss something or if you're not totally sure what you're getting into. At any rate, make sure you have an exact idea of what the terms are before you get started or it may come back to haunt you later. As “the little guy,” you have a lot more to lose when things go wrong.
Here are a few things you're going to want to keep in mind when you're looking over your agreement:
- You shouldn't be liable for your merchant's losses or chargebacks.
Make sure that this is stated plainly in black and white. You shouldn't have to bear any of the risk of the merchants and should be held blameless in the event of losses. You also shouldn't have to pay for any chargebacks that the merchant experiences.
- Your revenue sharing model should be balanced.
This is especially true when it comes to your residuals. Make sure that you have a fair amount coming to you for every sale. You do all of the heavy lifting to get the lead, so you deserve a cut of the profits for as long as that customer pays.
- Don't let them force you into exclusivity.
Don't allow yourself to be seduced by a single company because you never know how things are going to turn out, especially if you're new to the business. Relationships can fall apart, or you might notice better deals with new companies as you work. Never paint yourself into a corner and sign any kind of exclusivity agreement.
- Make sure that you get what you're entitled to, even after a contract ends.
Part of what makes merchant services so lucrative is that you will have access to residual income streams even long after your initial sale. As the sales agent who established that lead, you are entitled to the residuals from the merchants that you have sold to. It doesn't matter if your contract with the merchant services company expires or is severed in some other way, you must be able to still receive that income for the life of the merchant's account. More importantly, you should be able to sell these residual streams as well, or secure loans against them.
- Make sure that you can move your merchants to another processor in the event that you are not paid.
Normally, payment processors aren't going to want you to take the leads you gave them and then switch them to another processor, but you may have to do this to protect your asset. This may take some negotiation, but you're going to want to establish that if the merchant services company fails to pay you your residuals from a given merchant, that you can switch the merchant to another service provider.
This is not a completely exhaustive list, which is why you will want to check with a lawyer if you can. Speaking of lawyers, make sure that your contract specifies that you can recover attorney's fees in the even of a lawsuit.
2) A Price Model That Works
Selling merchant services is a line of work with a huge potential for both active and passive income. As you might expect, this means that you're certainly not the only merchant services agent out there and that you have tons of competition. Though it is always best to not attempt to compete on price, and to focus on value creation for your customer, you won't get very far if your prices are too high.
Try to negotiate to get the best deal with the payment processor or else you are going to have a hard time selling your wares. The fees for your merchant can really add up, so make sure that you are passing on the savings. In the long run, the better deal your clients get, the better your residuals are likely to be. Remember that you are helping your merchants to stay in business.
Perform your due diligence and make all the calculations before you determine if a deal is worth it or not.
3) Multiple Payment Processors
Your merchant service partner ideally should allow your merchant to use many different payment processing services. The more options, the better, because there's nothing worse than losing a
potential lead simply because they want to use their current processor. Whatever POS system that you are selling, it should be flexible and allow for many different processors and payment methods.
4) Good Customer Service
Customers are the heart of your business, and without them, you can't hope to thrive. Ideally, since so much of your business is based on residuals, you want to acquire customers that you can serve over the long-term. One of the things that will absolutely kill customer retention is bad technical support and customer service. You may be doing the best you can to solve your client's problems, but if the merchant services company can't hold up their end of the bargain when it comes to customer support, it is like you have wasted all of your efforts.
Makes sure to ask lots of questions before you sign a contract and do plenty of research about the company, because you are ultimately putting your valuable merchant connections into their hands. Take a few of these factors into consideration:
- The size of their customer support department.
What kind of investment, in terms of labor, do they make in the realm of customer support? If you or your clients call to fix some technical issues, how long will you have to wait before you can talk to a human being?
- The quality of the customer support.
Are the people on the other end of the line well-trained? Do they actually successful solve your clients' problems in a timely manner, or do they seem under-trained and clueless? Do novel problems that don't follow their script make them confused?
- The hours of their customer support lines.
Do their customer support call centers have decent hours? Ideally, they would be available around the clock, though this isn't always realistic, of course. Another thing you will want to consider is what happens if a client calls and it is after-hours.
- Whether they do out-calls.
Is the merchant service company willing to send tech support technicians out to your merchant's location? Many times, this can actually be faster and easier for your merchant than their having sit there on the line with a remote technician, especially if the problem is hardware-related.
- What is the training like?
What kind of help does the merchant service provider give to your client to get them up and running? Do they offer training material? Do representatives from the company go on-site to show them?
- Are you informed about customer service issues or kept in the dark?
At the very least, you should get a call or some form of notification when your merchant is having technical trouble. Even better, it would be great if they provide you with a way to remotely access all of your client's trouble tickets.
Remember all of these factors when you are choosing a good partner company. It can mean a lot when it comes to customer retention. The thing is, it may be hard to determine some of these things—like, for example, the exact quality of their customer service team—until you are actively working with them. This is why it is so important to never sign an exclusivity deal with any one company when you are first starting out, as there are always going to be a few unknowns that you can't quite fathom until you're out there helping your merchants to succeed.
5) Upsells That Actually Provide Value
A large percentage of the income that you will be making will come in the form of upells because it's simply easier to sell to an existing customer than it is to sell to a potential one. This is a classic example of the “foot in the door” technique, and you will find that you will be using it a lot.
Upselling can be a great source of income for you, but what about your customer? These are going to be long-term relationships for you, so you don't want to rip your clients off by selling them useless services that they don't need. This is why you want your partner to offer genuinely high-quality products that you can upsell to your clients. For example, if you sold a POS system to a merchant, and you learn from your regular communications with him that he is in need of liquid cash, you might be able to make a decent profit if your merchant services partner also allows you to sell short-term merchant loans.
6) Free Credit Card Terminals
Sometimes clients aren't going to want to pay for hardware upfront, especially if they are going to be paying a substantial monthly fee. A similar evolution has happened in other subscription-based electronics industries, such as the cell phone industry, where the customer receives the hardware for free or at a huge discount, but pays a service fee for its use. Nowadays, the POS industry is leaning in this direction, so don't be surprised if your clients don't expect to pay anything upfront.
In order to cater to this demand, make sure that your merchant services company offers a free terminal deal, even if they have other options that require paying for hardware. As time goes on, you may find that there will be more and more of an expectation in the market for free credit card terminals, so be prepared. If the merchant services offer all-inclusive package deals that will get the client started for absolutely no upfront cost, that is even better. If your potential client basically has nothing to lose, then the sale is much more likely to happen. A lot of the time, paying upfront for a equipment isn;t really worth it unless there is some major advantage to it, such as greater flexibility and not having to be tied to a specific merchant service provider.
7) Decent Analytics
In our age of technological progress, there's really no excuse for a merchant service to not provide you with analytics on the back-end. This will allow you to manage your business and examine where the money is coming and going. You might have access to a few different kinds of information, including your merchant's sales activity, their history of tech support calls, and maybe even information about your own residuals or the activities of agents who are working under you.
When it comes to any business at all, you can perform the trial and error that you need to perfect your sales strategy much better once you have access to a decent level of analytics. Ask about this before you decide on a merchant service company. Even if you don't plan to make heavy use of these tools (though you should) it at least shows that your partner is technologically advanced and that
they are ready to meet the challenges of the future head-on.
8) Good Training Material
There's no point in your client even purchasing a POS if he isn't going to know how to use it. Examine your merchant service provider's training and information material. You want to do this before you get started selling because 1) you need to familiarize yourself with how the system works if you are going to sell it anyway and 2) you need to decide if the information material is actually decent.
A good service provider will offer more than manuals, too. You want online resources, and some sort of payment processing sales training program, especially one that involves merchant services representatives from the company coming out to the field and showing your client exactly what they need to do. As with providing good customer service, a decent training program of some kind is critical. If your client feels that the system is too difficult or cryptic to use, he is bound to drop you sooner or later, and that is a stream of residuals that you will lose out on.
It just makes good business sense to make sure that your client is on board and that there are no problems from the beginning. Play the long-term game by making sure your merchant has everything that he needs.
Though, as mentioned before, you will probably find that more and more of your clients will expect a free credit card terminal, since the industry is trending in this direction, some clients will still want to lease equipment for various reasons. Perhaps they are interested in something more high-end, for example. Maybe they want a credit card terminal that is not tied to a specific merchant service, so that they have the flexibility to switch if they feel the need, but this means that they must buy the hardware themselves.
Even when a client wants to pay for the equipment, though, he might not have to pay upfront. Having a fair leasing plan means that the client can afford the terminal even if he doesn't have as much capital to spend upfront. This kind of flexibility is key in accommodating all kinds of merchants, and you want to look for a merchant service provider that offers this kind of option just in case.
As with any other kind of sale, you should receive a percentage of the monthly payments that your merchant makes on the equipment. Make sure that this is part of the agreement before you sign up.
10) Help Analyzing Statements
Reading merchant statements and coming up with just the right pricing for your client can be complicated. This can be a headache even for people who have been working as sales agents for awhile, so you can imagine how confusing analyzing all of this unfamiliar financial information can be for someone who is totally new to the business. Make sure that your merchant service company is willing to help you on this front, and that they will provide you with merchant statement analysis services if you should find that you need them.
Getting into merchant service sales is a great choice if you're looking for a challenging and rewarding career where you can legitimately help customers while making a decent income for yourself. There are few lines of work that allow this level of residual income and revenue sharing, and there are many directions that you can take in this business.
The first factor that you should keep in mind, though, since it affects so many other things, is
your choice of partner company in this endeavor. They should be willing to give you a fair cut of the deals, should be willing to negotiate with you on the details, and they should provide good customer service to your merchants that will allow you to retain them as customers for a long time to come. The key here is to find a company with which you can forge a long-term relationship that works for both of you.
Not all merchant service providers are created equal. First and foremost, you will want one with integrity—this is the trait that really encompasses all of the others. A company without integrity is not one that you will be able to work with in the long-term because you will never be able to create trust. Make sure to perform your due diligence an research the reputation of every merchant service that you're considering working with, but a good place to start might be with North American BanCard. We are a solid company to work with and have a great reputation of helping our sales agents every step of the way. Of course, you don't have to take our word for it—always ask for recommendations and look at reviews before you make that first critical partnership decision.