Some independent sales organizations intentionally make merchants' monthly statements as confusing as possible — even as others are working to dispel the mysteries of billing.

One attempt at obfuscation, known as "hidden volume," provides figures for interchange fees but fails to give the specifics for transaction flow. The omission leaves the effective rate an enigma.

It's a ploy that's on the rise, says Chris DuPont, whose Lynnwood, Wash.-based company, called Merchant Statement Analysis, evaluates and compares merchant statements for ISOs and sales agents.

Other ISOs manipulate fees to keep merchants in the dark about out how much they're really paying for transaction services, DuPont says.

It's all part of a concerted effort to keep small- and midsized-business owners confused about transaction fees, asserts Mark Horwedel, CEO of Merchants Advisory Group, a Fayetteville, Ark.-based trade group focused on payments.

"The payment business is rendered intentionally complex," Horwedel says. "Merchants don't want to become payments experts."

But some ISOs view the welter of confusion as an opportunity. Vantage Card Services Inc., an ISO based in Woodstock, Ga., relaunched its website a week ago with additional features designed to help merchants understand their statements, according to Ty Hardison, the firm's vice president of strategy and development.

The site, called myRealRate.com, offers merchants several options. To get started, business owners select an industry, such as retail, restaurant, lodging, grocery, medical, schools or B-to-B. They enter their monthly bankcard sales, average ticket and monthly billing amount. The site then leads users though the steps of calculating their "real rate."

Other sections of the site include "industry trends," which shows average real rates by industry over time and by geography. A "business intelligence" section compares users' fees with benchmarks for their industry.

Vantage has been helping merchants compute their real rates for several years, but is offering the industry and geographic benchmarking for the first time, Hardison says.

The company hopes to use the site to win new accounts and also to demonstrate its good pricing to established customers, he says.

The service also should prove especially helpful to new merchants trying to figure out how much expense to pass along to customers, Hardison suggests.

Merchants who want to steer consumers to a particular form of payment should find the site useful, too, Hardison suggests. They won't want to offer a 3% discount for cash if their real transaction rate comes 2%, he says.

The site also helps sort out the value of alternative payments approaches, Hardison says. Is Square's mobile card acceptance device a good deal at 2.75%? Merchants can find out with the help of the site, he says.

More third-party help is on the way for merchants, too. Vision Partners & Associates, a Silver Spring, Md.-based startup, has been analyzing merchant statements for about six months, says Janet Langenderfer, the firm's managing director.

Right now, Vision evaluates statements as a service, but it is working to turn the service into an online product by January, Langenderfer says.

Meanwhile, DuPont at Merchant Statement Analysis is interpreting statements for ISOs and agents. The company often provides its reports more quickly than ISO central offices or processors – usually within 12 hours and certainly within 24 hours, he says.

The company provides salespeople with white-label reports consistent with the ISOs colors and graphics, DuPont says. Agents can put the reports side-by-side with merchants' statements for comparison, DuPont says.

Merchant Statement Analysis charges $19.99 per quote but offers lower prices for higher-volume customers, he notes.

Third-party analysis not only saves time but also frees salespeople to concentrate on their specialties, Dupont says.

"Companies can focus on selling and relationships," he says.

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