A veteran acquiring executive describes recent changes at First Data Corp. as "the awakening of a sleeping giant."

One of those changes is a renewed emphasis on independent sales organizations and sales agents, says Jerell Olive, general partner at Cary, N.C.-based Applied Merchant Group LLC, which does business as Bankcard Source.

"I'm very enthused about the change in outlook," Olive says. "They're very ISO-centered. They want to help us grow."

He came away from a recent First Data meeting convinced that the processor's new top management believes in strengthening the company's focus on ISOs. For a little over a year, Frank Bisignano has served as chief executive officer, adding the role of chairman in March. Joe Plumeri is the company's vice chairman.

"I am very keen on the principle that all rises and falls on leadership," says Olive. "When I see the new leadership, I see their enthusiasm–I like to call it the fire–filtering down through First Data."

The leadership and commitment to ISOs also impresses a long-time First Data executive, OB Rawls, senior vice president and general manager of its national and ISO portfolio.

He says his new bosses thought hard about what the company could do to become what they called "the greatest place in the U.S. for ISOs to do business."

"I know it sounds a little hokey, but that's the real truth," Rawls says as looks back on the past year. "Those are the conversations we had internally."

Executives had to organize a huge company cobbled together from multiple acquisitions. First Data operated on multiple platforms that required some of its ISO customers to enter data more than once.

"It just wasn't a convenient way to do business," Rawls admits.

Meanwhile, focus groups of ISOs and merchants asked for tools to help them manage their businesses, prompting First Data to develop what the company calls six "pillars" for its new "client tool set."

First, the company's new boarding tool requires ISOs and agents to enter data only once. The cloud-based tool directs the information to all of the right platforms.

A second pillar offers merchant-level reporting. Merchants or ISOs can dial in from any device to view their deposits, First Data's adjustments and chargebacks on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Because it's a self-service tool, ISOs are relieved of some of their service duties, Rawls says.

Third is an interchange-management tool for ISOs and merchants. Rawls points out that the six levels of interchange that prevailed when he entered the business have grown to several hundred. With ISOs facing 20% attrition of their sales staffs, the need for help with interchange becomes even more acute, he says. The tool provides interchange by merchant, category and SIC code, which classifies industries.

A portfolio management tool, the fourth pillar, includes risk and profitability modules. "It takes the reporting down to a micro level," Rawls says.

Fifth comes a customer relationship management tool that's concentrated on self-service and thus reduces reliance on call centers. It includes document management so that ISOs can view contracts online. The CRM tool also enables ISOs to communicate with First Data through a chat feature that directs each query to the proper department or platform.

Sixth is a tool that helps ISOs and agents compute and track their residuals.

For Rawls it all amounts to simplifying the job for ISOs and their merchant clients, all of whom would prefer to devote their time to building their businesses instead of manipulating numbers.

"It's easy to say you want to be the best place for people to do business, but it's hard to put the tools and commitment in place," he says. "We've made a multi-million dollar investment to the ISO community."

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