As independent sales organizations (ISOs) offer new payment technology and other services to improve merchant relationships, the ISOs have to decide whether to charge a fee—a difficult decision that can differ from one merchant to another.

“If you’re providing a value, you should get paid for it,” says Jeff Broudy, vice president of sales and marketing for Total Merchant Services in Woodland Hills, Calif.

Total has a new point of sale marketing and payment solution—dubbed Groovv—designed to help merchants integrate payments with tools to manage and grow their business. Merchants get an Android based Tablet with the Groovv application on it. The upfront placement is free, but Total charges a monthly service charge for using the software. Total charges a base rate and sales partners can tack on additional fees up to specified cap.

ISOs and agents don’t have to bump up the rate, but Broudy doesn’t see anything wrong with them doing so because there’s an inherent value in Groovv. Nonetheless, sales partners are prohibited from charging above what Total determines to be reasonable because it would bad for the company if agents were grossly overcharging. Total determines a “fair price” based on market research and feedback from its sales partners. “You need the right offering with the right value proposition at the right price and that gives you some legs,” Broudy says.

When deciding on a strategy, ISOs take a variety of approaches. Some believe value should always come with a price tag, while others appear more apt to give things away for free under the right circumstances.

“It’s not one-size-fits-all, for sure,” says Michael A. Gross, president and chief executive of FlashBanc, LLC, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based ISO.  

FlashBanc, for instance, has been working with a hospital that it didn't name for about five years—a fairly long run based on acquiring industry standards. FlashBanc provides monthly customized reports of payments and other activity that it designed specifically for this hospital. The ISO’s fee for providing these reporting services is bundled into the cost of the overall processing relationship. While another payments processor could theoretically come in with a lower price, it can’t necessarily replicate the time and the energy FlashBanc spent on developing and implementing these customized reports for the hospital, says Gross.

Meanwhile, with certain other merchants, FlashBanc is taking a different approach to value-added services by giving away a free tablet in the hopes of earning greater business down the road through a loyalty program called SpringBig. While the initial hardware is free, Merchants pay between $95 and $129 a month to use the program, Gross says.

Gross says it’s worth it for FlashBanc to give away the tablets for free, even though it costs the ISO money, because of the possibility of increasing merchant stickiness. “We’re looking at this as a long-term solution for our merchants,” he says, adding that if it serves to reduce attrition, the expense of the tablet becomes negligible over time.

Merchant acquirers say it’s important for ISOs to understand that working with the lowest cost provider isn’t always the primary motivator for merchants and that price wars alone won’t keep attrition rates down and win an ISO new business over the long haul. Instead, some industry executives believe ISOs should focus less on price and more on how to help merchants solve their problems and drive additional revenue for them. If done well, merchants will stick with the acquirer and may be willing to pay a little more for services.

 “If you’ve built a tight relationship with your customer, you can charge for things,” says Michael Cottrell, senior vice president and chief business development officer at TriSource Solutions LLC, an ISO in Bettendorf, Iowa.

Scott Tivey, president of CNP Solutions, a payments consulting firm in Weston, Conn., also believes ISOs can charge merchants for value-added services that fill a real need. For instance, he frequently gets calls from merchants who are dealing with chargeback problems. A number of companies protect merchants from those problems, and ISOs could choose to white label those services and charge extra for them. So if a chargeback company charges an ISO $30, an ISO can charge a merchant $35 to $40.

“Most ISOs see the opportunity to have a triple win—to save their own financial liability, help the merchant and have incremental revenue as a part of the opportunity,” Tivey says.

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