Enough is enough. Sales agents sometimes decide to sever their relationships with merchants who break rules, ask clueless questions, make unjustified demands, register wrong-headed complaints or bicker endlessly over prices and fees.

That kind of “divorce” rarely occurs but can prove painful, sales agents agree. Most agents report only a handful of such cases during years in the business and say they usually make the split over the phone instead of with a more impersonal e-mail message.

“Every once in a while you get that pain-in-the-rear-end merchant that no matter how you bend over backwards it’s not going to be good enough,” says Mike Weiner, CEO of Blakely, Pa.-based Advanced Merchant Group. “If we can’t serve your needs,” Weiner eventually tells those problem merchants, “you might be better off going somewhere else.”

Agents most often terminate a troublesome commitment because the residuals they earn from the merchant’s transactions fail to compensate for the headaches and heartaches involved, says Gary Peterson, president of Mount Prospect, Ill.-based Arlington Heights Merchant Banc.

“I’ve had a few occasions where the merchant was doing $50 to $60 a month [in residuals] but they were just a real pain in the neck to deal with,” says Peterson. “They were very caustic. It came to a point where we said, ‘Look, we really do appreciate your business and thank you so much, but don’t call me anymore.’”

One of Peterson’s merchants complained bitterly about not receiving payment after causing the problem himself by failing to “batch out” at the end of the day, he says. Later, the retailer groused about a “late” payment only because he neglected to take into account that holidays do not count as business days, Peterson continues. Many merchants send their transactions for settlement in a batch at the end of a business day.

That same retailer, he adds, had a meltdown every time a rival agent offered a price of a penny less per transaction, even though fees would made the competing service more expensive. “It was more aggravation than it was worth,” Peterson says of the decision to annul the relationship.

Assign Blame

Then, too, the retailer does not always play the villain. But when merchants have valid complaints, they often unknowingly blame the wrong entity. If a smaller bank delays payment for a day to take advantage of the “float,” for example, merchants often lash out at the sales agent, says Weiner.

“We told her to call her bank and find out why they were holding her money for a day,” he says. “She ended up switching banks and now she gets her deposit the next day, the way she’s supposed to.”

Even when merchants make justified complaints, they sometimes make unreasonable demands for restitution. Although a retailer was mistakenly billed for a year of PCI fees instead of a month, the agent could not meet an ultimatum to force the bank to make good on the error by 3 p.m. that day, says Weiner. All he could do was apologize and say, “If you’re going to leave, then leave.” 

In other situations merchants break rules, and agents may decide to drop the account. Peterson, for example, stopped working with a retailer who had multiple merchant identification numbers. “We decided it wouldn’t be a good thing to continue,” Peterson says.

Whatever the cause, agents can avoid awkward breakups with merchants by declining at the outset to take on the troublemakers, says Bo Hentz, owner and “chief problem solver” at
Chattanooga, Tenn.-based Choo Choo Merchant Services. “At first, I’d take anybody because I was just getting into the business,” Hentz says. “As you learn, you find out some people just aren’t worth it.”

Potential customers who sift through every detail of a contract tend to cause problems later, Hentz says. “You know they’re going to be a pain,” he says. “They’re going to be a stickler for every detail.” Merchants who balk at providing a Social Security number usually have bad credit histories, he notes.

Seek Help

Once saddled with a retailer they find irritating, agents have another alternative—turning the merchant over to the acquiring bank, says Frank Grabowski, owner of Seabrook, Texas-based American Card Service. “If we’re not giving you satisfaction,” Grabowski tells the retailers, “why don’t you call directly into customer service? They have direct access to more information, and they’ll be able to help you quicker.”

The handoff makes sense, Grabowski says. “That’s what the big boys are there for—to back us up,” he says. 

Whatever pitfalls agents encounter, they seldom break off a merchant relationship simply because the account produces only a small amount of revenue. Grabowski has had Mexican restaurants that produced residuals of $15 to $20 a month at first but were providing residuals of $80 to $120 a month a year later.

Weiner tells of working in the group life insurance business before becoming a sales agent. A customer with a three-person account that paid him $21 a month referred him to a relative who helped him land a 7,000-person account that paid him $37,000 a month for two years, he says.

And even the accounts that remain small and never produce a referral have value as long as they generate few questions or complaints, says Peterson. “Any money,” he notes, “is better than no money.”

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