By Ann Train
As the payments industry transitions from basic payment terminals to smart POS systems that can manage entire business infrastructures in an integrated fashion, the learning curve for merchants and the agents who serve them has steepened significantly. To address the added complexities, leading-edge payment companies are adopting layered training strategies that tap into individual learning styles, whether they be visual, auditory or kinesthetic.
"If you rewind the clock, 20 years ago our industry was relatively simple," said Jared Isaacman, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Harbortouch Payments LLC. "It was binary in a lot of ways. The sales rep force was responsible for filling out a merchant application. It was either approved or declined. You shipped out a terminal, plugged it into a power and phone line, and it either approved or declined sales – very simple."
With today's advanced POS systems, sales cycles are more protracted. "The selling cycle of point-of-sale is a little bit longer than just tossing a terminal in there," said Keith Ashcraft, Director of Corporate Recruiting at Electronic Payments Inc. "But I think once sales agents get one under their belt and realize the residual is larger, the merchant is more sticky and they don't have to price the account lowest because they're selling more value, it begins to make sense."
Payment companies have also had to adapt to shifting perspectives on portfolio management, whether they are boarding new merchants or upgrading existing clients.
"Our focus today is really around new products, value-added solutions, certainly retention strategies, leveraging technology to help you work more efficiently and manage your portfolio better," said Jennifer "Jenn" Reichenbacher, Vice President of Marketing at iPayment Inc. Reinforcing the message that both the payments space and expectations from merchants are changing, she added that the persona of the small business owner is now a critical consideration.
As each company interviewed for this article details, training merchant level salespeople (MLSs), ISOs and merchants has become a full-time endeavor for leading payment businesses, especially as products and services are continually refreshed.
EPI launched its first ISO Training Roadshow in 2015, a half-day training that happened to coincide with the Southeast Acquirers Association's conference that year. Since then, EPI has expanded the program to seven cities and will likely add more in the future, some adjacent to regional events and others as standalone events to broaden the reach to its network of more than 1,000 agents nationwide.
The interactive training events are free to attend for prospective and existing partners. Topics range from the latest advances in POS technology to tips on selling, merchant challenges and more. What makes the live training events unique is that agents walk away with more than just knowledge; they receive tangible tools for selling to merchants.
"We do a demo for them on different verticals, and we actually give all the attendees a free Exatouch demo tablet with the software loaded on it, so they can walk through the demo with us," Ashcraft said. Exatouch is EPI's in-house POS system. Equipped with the updatable tablet, sales partners are able to demonstrate to merchants on screen how to run reports, manage inventory, schedule employees and process payments, for example.
If more in-depth assistance is required during a product demonstration field sales visit, EPI also offers remote training by phone. An in-house assistant can walk through different functions on screen and answer questions while partners are on location with merchants. Agents are advised to schedule blocks of time about 48 hours in advance, as daily time slots tend to fill up quickly, Ashcraft noted.
EPI also hosts weekly Training Tuesdays, which are one-hour webinars covering features, developments and benefits of Exatouch that are specific to certain verticals. Every other week, Webinar Wednesdays sessions focus on other products and programs EPI offers.
The partner-intensive approach offers many learning opportunities. "With a little bit of effort, hopping on a training call or webinar or going to one of our roadshows, getting hands on with these new products, you can really expand and grow your business," said Michael Nardy, EPI founder and CEO. "We're giving you the vehicle, and we need a good driver."
As Harbortouch's integrated POS systems evolved over time, company executives recognized that a formal training component was necessary to ensure brand consistency. When Harbortouch University launched, the company's PowerPoint training presentation included a computerized test at the end. Today HU mores closely resembles a university-level program.
"Harbortouch University, which began in 2008, has evolved into over 100 courses, some of which can be done remotely and some of which you have to come out on site to our training center in Allentown [Pa.] in order to complete," Isaacman said. He noted that about a quarter of the course material is designed for managers who run bars, restaurants or retail locations, and there are educational DVDs employees can review at home.
Another chief component is the company's Certified Harbortouch Reseller Program. Reseller partners begin at the Bronze (basic software install) level before moving to Silver or Gold (more complex system installs) level certifications. Each level requires a week-long commitment to attend classes held on-site at the Harbortouch training facility. Participants must pass practical and oral examinations to earn certification at each level.
"You literally need to be Bronze for probably six months to a year before you continue to layer it on, because it's very intense training," Isaacman said. "The Certified Reseller – that's the top-gun level standard where you don't just want to be able to sell it; you want to be able to program and install it, and have some ability to support it."
He noted that generally speaking Harbortouch is fully responsible for programming, on-site installation, training, service and support for merchants, as most agents prefer to just complete Harbortouch University 101, a computer-based online training program which covers Harbortouch POS system basics.
Harbortouch frequently hosts training webinars to familiarize its sales force with various features and programs. "Because the POS system does more than just run credit cards – it helps run their business – we're often asked how we can help generate revenue, whether it's loyalty programs, gift cards or better analytics," he said. "But first you've got to master the fundamentals of POS; it's the heart of this whole thing."
In May, iPayment hosted its 17th annual Partner Conference. The two-day event brought together hundreds of agent and ISO partners under the theme Focus on the Future. Daily sessions covered information, tools and value-added solutions for capitalizing on current trends. Also on hand were approximately 30 iPayment supplier partners who exhibited products and interacted with reseller partners, the company noted.
"Over the past three years, we've really focused on industry trends to help our partners prepare for growth," Reichenbacher said. "It's challenging because we have a lot of large sub-ISOs. Between our account management team, the ongoing training, our communications and this event, we've been able to get new products, value-added services and trend overviews in front of our partner community such that they understand the opportunity."
To increase partner dialogue, iPayment launched a customer engagement portal in 2016 that allows ISOs to interact directly with its technology team. The online training program now offers downloadable modules. "We recently launched our ISO training gated website," Reichenbacher said. "We assign a login as part of the orientation process. We created 15 lessons. It's a guided experience and can be referenced any time."
The two-track online curriculum features basic and advanced levels for newly boarded partners, supported by onboarding, managed account and partner training teams who are ready to answer questions as needed. iPayment regularly invites subject-matter experts to present 45-minute webinars on topics of interest. Partners can either attend in real-time or receive recordings on-demand. In addition to monthly product and service training sessions and newsletters, on-site training for larger groups can be arranged.
At the time of this writing, Total Merchant Services Inc. was entering the final stages of being acquired by North American Bancard Holdings LLC. Part of the attraction for investors was its channel partner program, a credit to TMS's onboarding and sales training business initiatives.
"Our focus has been to put together a system where someone with zero or little experience could come on board and be prepared to pass their CPP [Certified Payment Professional] exam within 45 days of onboarding with Total Merchant," said a spokesperson for TMS. The CPP certification program is available through the Electronic Transactions Association.
In addition to delivering three levels of training based on payments industry experience, the seven-session course covers pertinent subjects ranging from managing lead-ins to follow-ups and referrals, and more. Refresher training sessions are offered once monthly to the ISO channel. According to TMS, during the monthly "hour of power" sessions, MLSs join in company executive-directed phone calls for discussions about a particular topic and opportunity, for example, leading in with POS conversion or underwriting.
Realizing that no two merchant businesses operate exactly the same, TMS adopted an effective strategy for dealing with systems integrations. "We've built out a business development team here that works with our ISO channel, and our integrations for semi-integrated or fully integrated can be one-offs," said the company spokesperson. "It can be just one merchant or a franchise." Level 3 support for its integrated Groovv POS product line is expected to continue after the acquisition.
In building out its Partner Solutions group, First Data Corp. has unified sales and training support for a full range of enterprises from individual MLSs all the way to large super-wholesale ISOs. "We have tactical and strategic relationship managers, since tactical issues related to product decisions must be resolved quickly," said Kevin Sisk, Senior Vice President, Partner Solutions at First Data. He added that the company's strategic account managers guide relationships from a revenue and training standpoint.
"We have agents under the Ignite Payments program who resell payment processing but may not become registered ISOs or First Data employees," Sisk said. "We have a week-long intensive program for anyone new to the industry and a shorter version for more seasoned agents."
In addition to conducting product bootcamps, First Data hosts an annual conference that offers intensive training for reseller partners, as do the company's monthly webinars and education portal. "We really want to remove the challenge and burden of staying current, do it for them, so they don't have the operational overhead of having a lot of people to help educate," Sisk said.
Sisk pointed out that First Data bundles many of its products to give resellers optimum leverage. "If you think of a buffet, there are 10 different items," he said. "We want to give them the buffet price, but then allow them to take those 10 different items and retail each one as they see fit, and manage the retail a la carte."
First Data Vice President of Partner Solutions Terry Wilson noted that many ISOs today are searching for independent software vendor solutions. "What we've done is provide them with Clover," he said. "It becomes their own individual ISV solution, which they can resell; it's cloud-and app-based. Our Clover sales are going through the roof."
For First Data and other companies interviewed by The Green Sheet, execution is the key. "Even with seasoned agents and ISOs, you can't assume just because they appear to know what they're doing, it doesn't mean that they're up to date on every single thing that First Data is doing," Sisk said. "We take the approach once they're on board that it's new for everybody."
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