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Precision Payments: The Secret to Selling to Small Businesses in New Orleans, Louisiana | Alison Burns

The Secret to Selling to Small Businesses

Selling to small businesses is different than selling to large corporations or consumers.

A small business has a unique set of needs.

These businesses do not have purchasing experts on staff or vendor managers whose sole responsibility is to make deals happen. Instead, the decision maker at a small business is typically wearing many hats and hearing your sales pitch might be a stretch for them.

The good news is that with small businesses, a lot of the time the sales cycle will be much shorter. There are fewer people involved with the decision and less red tape to work through. 

However, establishing trust is extremely important. Small business owners can be loyal to a fault. Also, while the majority of businesses in the U.S. are small businesses, sourcing and reaching this long tail of potential customers in a cost-effective way can be very difficult. 

To help us dive into the secrets of marketing and selling to small businesses, we talked with Alison Burns founder of Precision Payments. Her company has been successfully selling their credit card processing and merchant services to small business since 2013.

Check it out:

The Soul of America Tour

This episode is part of the Soul of America tour sponsored by Tecovas Boots, Badger Maps, and Impact Dog Crates. During April 2017, I drove with my six month-old puppy Muddy Waggers, my guitar, and my podcasting equipment with the goal of recording podcast episodes with small business owners throughout the heart of America.

Listen to the podcast:

Show Notes

A summary of our interview with Alison Burns of Precision Payments is below.

You can use the links below to jump to your interests.

Tell me a little bit more about Precision Payments. So, how did this all get started, what inspired you to get going?

Alison Burns: I founded the company in August of 2013, kind of just to meet some ongoing needs that I kept hearing in the marketplace. I was in this industry before I started this company. We’re called an ISO, Independent Sales Organization, but basically to the rest of the world outside of our industry we’re a broker. Nobody knows that term ISO.

So the reason I started it was for a couple of purposes. I found that a lot of people in this industry, a lot of salespeople, were, for lack of a better term, slimy. Overpromising, under-delivering, not honest, not transparent, and really not customer-focused. It was very transactional, but we’re in such a confusing industry that you can’t be transactional, you’ve gotta have some kind of an ongoing relationship when a merchant has questions.

We are a payments processor. So you know when mom and dad go into a business and they pay with their credit card, merchants are charged a fee for their customers to be able to use credit cards.

I’m the person that helps with that. I negotiate and re-negotiate those fees, and make sure it’s as safe as possible for the business to take mom and dad’s credit card.

Historically we’re called the credit card processing industry, because that really is our bread and butter. However, what we do encompasses all non-cash forms of payment a business owner would take. We also deal with electronic checks, gift cards, and loyalty cards. We are based in New Orleans, but do business nationwide.

What was the opportunity you saw that prompted you to go from working in the industry to setting out on your own?

Alison Burns: I would go and I would make these presentations, these proposals, to business owners, and because I was an actual employee of a processor I was captive, right? I could only sell their products and services, and I only had a certain level of rates I could go down to. They had overhead for me, they had the salary they were paying me, the benefits, the cool trips I won for selling a lot of product, etcetera.

I would make this proposal presentation to these business owners, if I would get to that point, and they would go, “Yeah, well this is a great rate package, does somebody else have something equally or more competitive?” And also, “Maybe we haven’t heard of your processor, let us research a little bit, like, are they an industry leader? Are they really trustworthy? Are people gonna answer my phone call when I have to call that 800 number?” We don’t have time to research that either.

That is when I decided, “Okay, here’s my brainchild. I’m just gonna do that for them, I’m going to be a brokerage.” There are something like over 5,000 ISO’s (brokers) in America, but typically they still stay captive to one or two lines. They get really good and that’s their niche.

But I don’t like that, because I had to turn away so many people. Those solutions are not always the best for everybody. So, okay, if I need to find another solution for you, I have no problem doing that. I will, and then let’s onboard you and let us work for you, let us serve you.

Why do you focus mostly on small businesses?

Alison Burns: Well, we’re based here in New Orleans, and small businesses are a big part of the fabric here. And also, because I’m trying to make that paradigm shift in terms of customer service, they care more. When you have a small business owner that’s wearing all the hats, juggling all the balls, they appreciate passing something off to somebody else who is an expert and can really genuinely help them. They’re a lot more satisfied and you retain that customer longer.

When you deal  these big, huge companies, there are so many layers to go down through. You might talk to the CFO, who’s the ultimate decision maker, but he has no idea what the real pain points are within the company.

Is the sales process is quite a bit longer with a larger company too?

Alison Burns: It can be, for sure. I mean, there are some small business owners who take a while, too. The only thing with small business owners that takes a really long time is penetrating trust. If they don’t know you specifically, or basically have one degree of separation, especially here in the south, then they take a really long time to cultivate and go, “Okay, now I’m gonna switch with you.

What could be a one week-long sales cycle with them, maybe two weeks at most, can stretch out for a long time. I literally have people I’m still working on about two years in, because they’re like, “Let’s just talk about some things. Let’s talk about some more things. You know, keep following up with me.

How do you generate the leads and how do you sell to these small businesses? Soup to nuts, what does that process look like?

Alison Burns: Yeah, so I am really heavily involved in networking. As a small business owner I was wearing all the hats myself for about three and a half years. So I was like, “Okay, I’m not gonna cold call. How can I get the most bang for my buck?” And so it was networking, and building those trusts or relationships, so that I had one degree of separation, and I had a lot more trust. And it was an easier sell for me to close, but I could still serve them adequately and be customer-focused. We also have social media and SEO optimization for our website, we have great teams that work on that for us.

How do you network? What events that you go to? How do you approach that?

Alison Burns: I sit on a lot of committees and I’m involved with a lot of philanthropic work. I participate in the Fore! Kids committee, that puts on the Zurich Classic, a PGA tour event here, through the Players Club of Louisiana. It’s a huge committee that does that. And we’re there for the sole purpose of putting on the Zurich Classic and volunteering for it, and giving back to all these childhood cancers, educational funds, things like that, in and around the city. But at the same time it’s a lot of the who’s who of New Orleans, so that is great business networking. Really wonderful.

Rotary, same thing with that. They are not a networking organization, they’re not a buyers club, their sole mission is for volunteerism, but in that you have a lot of these who’s who of the city, and you start building a relationship with them because you’re not specifically going to them for a business meeting.

Maybe you’re doing a fundraising fishing rodeo, or we’re doing some work for junior achievement, or something like that.

Are there some networking opportunities that you thought would be good, that ended up not being as good?

Alison Burns: Yeah. So there was actually a specific business networking group that I was a part of for several years, and I enjoyed the people immensely in it. And my thought process initially, when I got into it years ago, was, “Okay, so this is a B to B only sales group. So this is gonna be great, we’re networking business to business.” However, the people in that group, the companies, they were working more with the big companies, the ones that aren’t taking credit cards, that maybe at their store levels, or their distributorship levels, they’re taking credit cards. They have a need for some kind of services. So that was kind of a learning process, it was a very expensive learning process, but I formed a lot of great relationships out of that, that I still maintain to this day. However, I’m no longer involved with that group.

I think that you just have to do everything through trial and error, and give it your all, and give it your best, and as long as you’re taking something away from it nothing’s ever a failure. Just like a dating relationship. As long as you’re learning something, you’re good.

You also mentioned SEO as a way to generate leads. What are the terms you’re targeting, how are you going about generating those leads?

Alison Burns: Yeah, so we have a lot of people driven to our website. We’re actually launching a website rebuild, we’re in the process of launching that right now, which is exciting. We’ve built a new tool on there which is very cool, and that is starting to gain some traction with folks as well.

The tool is an effective rate calculator. So basically, a merchant who tells me they don’t have time, or maybe they don’t have a lot of trust in me, “Okay Mr. Merchant, you can go and drive it. Head to our website, there’s a calculator on there, it will tell you the specific numbers from the specific statement to put in. It will pop that number back at you, and it will tell you, is this good? Is this bad? Do you need to contact us for further information?

We also collect their data from that, I mean it wouldn’t be a great lead gen tool if we weren’t capturing your company name, your contact information, etc.

What are the terms that you’re interested in targeting for people? When people search what do you want to pop up for in searches?

Alison Burns: We get anything from small business, small brokerage, local credit card processing, that kind of stuff. I just had a baseball hall of famer from Oklahoma reach out to me a week and a half ago, because he Googled small credit card processor, and we were one of the first ones that came up for him.

Do you actively monitor what terms you’re in the top 10 for Google, or what your average ranking is for different keywords?

Alison Burns: I don’t, but I have a team that does. So I have an outsourced social media team, and I have an in house marketing assistant who work together. They do all that stuff, and then they bring me into meetings and then they go, “Okay, well here’s all of our research, but here really is the pretty package of the research that you really need to know.

What percentage of your leads today come from your networking events, and what percentage of your leads come from SEO? And is there another channel?

Alison Burns: We also have current customers, and a great current customer referral program that really incentivizes them to give us referrals, and it’s several layers deep. We have a 100% close rate when that is cultivated and when they give us those.

The process for that is that they send us an email with the referral info. So on the new website launch we actually have a log-in, we have a portal for merchants to go log-in and open up help tickets, but also to place leads and referrals in there.

For your first referral for, I think it’s a year, you get your statement fee knocked off for an entire year. It’s a standard fee that even if they’re not processing anything, it’s the administrative fee. So that ranges anywhere from $10-25/month, depending on the product that they’re using and the services that they’re using. Two referrals, and you get that fee knocked off for three years, and then three referrals, you get it knocked off for the life that you’re with Precision Payment Systems.

Are there any other channels that you get leads from?

Alison Burns: You know, I have a really wonderful marketing assistant, and he is constantly looking for opportunities for us. So he’s been cold calling, especially now that we’re in the height of festival season. How can we get more involved in that, what can we do? So he actually made contact with somebody that is working a beer booth at Jazz Fest, but they love koozies because they get them more donations for their organization. So now we are, you know, that’s not really a referral for us, but we’re able to disseminate 2,000 koozies at Jazz Fest through that contact. Then he made contact at New Orleans Bourbon Fest, got them onboard as a client, and also gave them hundreds of koozies to give out to their VIPs, to really get our brand more out there. So that’s working.

What is the rough breakdown? What percentage of the leads come from each one of these channels?

Alison Burns: I would say the majority is from networking. 60% networking, probably 20% customer referrals, and then the rest is social media channels and SEO/search.

Do you see that mix of lead sources changing over time?

Alison Burns: I think the mix will probably change. Our website until recently was very basic; it was what I could afford as a startup. So it was nice, and it was a template website, and it was under $1,000. But, you know, you get what you pay for in everything. The old website had some major limiting factors in that it was not really optimized for search. The new website is much better in that regard. So we hope the mix continues to improve in terms of getting more leads from people searching for solutions like ours.

Once you get your leads, how do you qualify them? What’s your process to then reach out and sell?

Alison Burns: Yeah, so we do something called a fact-finding interview. It sounds very official, and it sounds like a really lengthy process, but it’s not always a lengthy process. It’s just more like a consultative approach, that’s kind of how we take it in everything. So, “What’s your business model, Mr. Merchant?” You know, “How are you processing right now? Is it the most efficient way possible? Can we recommend something that’s better for you? What is your charge back situation look like?” So we want to talk about security, and fraud, and compliance when it comes to all that stuff. And out of that, that’s full circle, and we kind of do an assessment, in our heads, on paper, and this is our recommendation, this is kind of the thing we’re talking about.

Also, in that fact finding, it helps us weed out the people who are fraudulent, who are not on the up and up. We find that out by asking those questions. I had a guy come, via the website, about a week ago or so, I called him back and he told me what his business was, he told me what his phone number is, and before I even called him I Googled everything, just to see if that was a legitimate thing. Well, I couldn’t find the business, and I couldn’t find the phone number, and I couldn’t find his name. And so I’m like, “Boom, boom, boom, red flags right there, what is going on?” Needless to say, they were not a real potential customer.

What percentage of your gross leads to you qualify as being workable? And what happens next?

Alison Burns: I would say 90% of leads are workable. So then we get all the paperwork in order. You know, “Okay, so what do we need to do?” Like, “Do you need to send us statements we need to analyze? Great, send us that.” And more often than not merchants are like, “No, no, no, this is what I’m paying, I know what I’m paying.” And you’re like, “Okay, great, I’m taking down those numbers, that’s perfect. Just for me to see the actual breakdown, can you please send me a statement?” And once you see it, you’re like, “That’s not at all what you’re paying.” I mean, you think one thing, but it’s really not what it is.

I would say 95% of the time people don’t have a good sense of what they’re actually paying. Usually they think they’re paying less than they actually are. Maybe that they were working with somebody and they said, “You have super, super competitive rates.” And I’m like, “Pssh, you have a 4.5% effective rate, and you’re doing business face to face like you’re swiping their card. You should be paying 2% effectively. I don’t know who told you that, but they were definitely not truthful with you.

How long is the process on average? You mentioned that people need to build trust. So, from the time somebody becomes a lead to the time somebody becomes a customer, how long is that on average?

Alison Burns: On average I would say a week and a half. Because as long as we’ve known them, or know somebody who knew them, that’s instant trust and credibility right there, and that makes it close a little bit faster.

What percentage of the leads, of the 90% of the leads that are good, do you end up closing?

Alison Burns: Oh, probably a good 70% of those, so a bit over 60% of gross leads. It’s very high. And if we don’t close them immediately, people often come back around, as long as we keep dripping on them.

How do you drip on them? What do you do?

Alison Burns: Just an email, “Hey, checking in. How’s everything going?” Or, if we’re by their business, just run in with a, you know, seven dollar box of a dozen donuts, “Hey, I just wanted to bring some goodies by.” Or, take a bag of some Precision Payment Systems pins and notepads, everybody needs those constantly, like, “Hey, just wanted to pop by, see how everything was, drop this off, you know, just because I appreciated talking to you.” Something like that.

What do you do on the retention front? I presume that with a close rate that high, is there a lot of turnover in processors?

Alison Burns: Yeah, there definitely can be, for sure. And that’s the transactional versus relational. And because I was going out on my own, and I wanted to make that paradigm shift, I was like, “Okay, no, we’re going to be very, very relational.” And I don’t remember the number right now, but for a competition at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week that I was a finalist in last year, for the Women’s Entrepreneur Fellowship, I did some research on this. And for an ISO, for a brokerage my size, with my volume, at the time my attrition rate was like two percentage points under the industry average. I want say the industry average was about 11%. And I was somewhere hovering around 8-9%, which I am proud of.

It’s a lot of work, I’m not going to lie. It is a ton of work, but we’re their first point of contact. Everybody has an 800 number with whatever respective processor we put them with, they have it on the sticker on their terminal, they have it in their welcome e-mail, their welcome packet, whatever. We ask them all the time, “Hey, if you have a question, come to us first. We’ll find out the answer for you, so you don’t have to do that digging. Very rarely will we ask you to get on the phone with these people, or for you to go do the digging and find it out yourself.” That really helps us a lot with customer service and with retention.

So what’s your vision, what’s your goal? What do you want to do with this?

Alison Burns: I want build out the team much more here in New Orleans, and I want to grow nationwide. If we close that guy in Oklahoma, that will be the first person out of the south. We have tons of people in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and we have some in Alabama and Florida. My whole vision is to build the team here, build up a sales manager in New Orleans, do the same in Baton Rouge, then I’d probably like to move, to an office in Mississippi and/or in Texas. Yeah, I don’t know if I’m looking at a buyout, people have asked me that a lot, if I’m looking to be acquired, if that’s my exit strategy. I don’t know, probably. But right now I’m having fun, just building it out, closing sales, and leading people. My heart is to lead and serve other people, whether it’s my customers or my employees, so I’m just having fun with all that.

When you’re hiring salespeople, how do you think about that? What are the traits that you look for in a successful salesperson that you think is going make them successful?

Alison Burns: I work with a sales trainer, and she actually has 25 years of industry experience. She was actually my first boss when I first got in this industry. She hired me at my former processor, and she’s absolutely wonderful. We’ve built out this impeccable job description for outside sales and we have our requirements. But when I get to talking with somebody, it’s so unscientific. It doesn’t matter what they have on paper, I go with my gut. And I look for hunger, I listen for the hunger words. For example, if instead of using  “we,” I want them to say “I.” And I know that’s not what we’re taught, all the time, look for we because a lot of people emphasize teamwork.

But sales is all about the individual, and the hunger, and the numbers. If you can provide me numbers, and you can show that you went out and you made something happen, I can see the hunger there. But I’ll tell you, I’ve talked to several people that, they didn’t have on paper what I was looking for and I’m like, “You have the hunger right there.

Can you give me an example of somebody that maybe didn’t have what you were looking for on paper, but who ended up working out?

Alison Burns: I’ll tell you, my marketing assistant. He is 23 years old, and he hates this term so much because he’s an old soul, but he is such a millennial. He’s 23, and he wowed my socks off in his interview process. And he is not outside sales, but he’s doing some things, like I mentioned, finding the festivals and stuff. He knocked my socks off. And he was the only person, out of everybody I interviewed for that position, to actually send me a thank you card for an interview. I mean, you and I were raised off of doing that, that’s like part of the thing that you do.

And I’m like, “Okay, this guy, you know, he’s hungry for it, and he’s respectful, and respectful is going to get you a lot of places.” I brought him in for his last interview and I wanted a presentation, cause he’s obviously going to be doing marketing. So we had a panel, since that’s not my specific wheelhouse, and I gave him very loose parameters with it. I told him: “Okay, I want you to tell me how you’re going to help support salespeople, and how you’re going to help build business through lead generation. And I want that to be in person, and I want that to be on the web, so, on digital. So you go for it.” And he just built this entire presentation, he did so much research that he put into it. Like, legit research, and I was like, “Done. Hunger right there. Love it.

Can you think of a time when you thought somebody would work out and they didn’t?

Alison Burns: Yeah. There was this one guy interviewed a couple weeks ago, and I was going to hire him. So our process is, first interview for sales I do over the phone, 30-45 minute, just a phone interview. If I like you I invite you back for a second interview, but that’s a panel, so that’s my sales/training manager and myself. And so, I had a great conversation with this guy and I bring him in for a second interview, and he starts off the interview, like, his eyes are so red. Like, red, red, red. And he’s like, “Dude, I woke up this morning with allergies.” And I’m like, “Hold on. I could be your boss, you just called me dude.

So there’s that. And I’m like, I have allergies too, and I get it, like I have a little bit of allergies going on today, and sinus funk. But I don’t look like that. It was like a beet in his eye, it was that red. And the way he was talking was just like, “Well, and I really like this about selling.” So I’m talking with my sales and training contractor afterwards and I’m like, “What did you think about him?” And she was like, “Alison, was he stoned?” And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that had to be it.

And he just went on, and on, and on, about how much he wanted the position and he was looking forward to being hired and, you know, etcetera. And I never heard from the guy again. I didn’t even so much as get a thank you e-mail.

Can you tell me about a time when things didn’t go well in your business? What did you do about it?

Alison Burns: I feel like that happens on a very regular basis, to be honest with you. Sometimes I am in danger of losing a big client, or two, or three, which happened a few weeks ago.

One of them came to us and said: “Hey, we can we talk about any issues that we’re having, and maybe revisit some rates if we’re thinking about switching providers?

So I had to take this merchant and drop them to bare bones fees, I mean, our income really took a hit from them. But I’d rather retain them than not, and they’re a great referral source, and they’ve been long time clients.

The other lady, who literally the next day told me that she left, she’s one of those kind of merchants that is very high maintenance. Sometimes those clients are not worth the income that we make. I was trying to save it for a little while, then it was like, “Oh, screw it. What is done is done.” And then I’m just, “We have to keep trucking, we have to keep getting more people on board.

Have you ever decided to part ways with a customer because you may not be the best fit for each other?

Alison Burns: There was one who kind of left early last year … he’s super, super high maintenance. And so, like I said, we take on the customer service role, you have any questions you ask us, and we handle it for you. This dude had the same question every 90 days, cause he was forgetting to save his password reset info in his e-mail. Just build a file folder for it, stick it in there. And so, every time I had to get on the phone, I had to work on trying to reset his password, and it just happened to be this one day, I was back to back in meetings, and I was like, “Okay, Mr. Guy, so here’s the 800 number, I need you to call them.

He was pissed from that. Like a week later I get a notice that he’s deactivated his account, and I call him and ask him: “What are you doing? We give you such great customer service, every time you have a sales people” cause he has a really high turnover, “we’re in there, we’re doing donuts, we’re training, we’re there all day. What are you doing?” “You made me call an 800 number once.” And I was like … I didn’t fire him, he fired me, but I didn’t even fight for it.

What is your number one small business piece of advice that you would give to people?

Alison Burns: There’s no such thing as “no.” No is not a word, there’s just, find another way. It’s going to come around. You’re going to find another way. If you want to make it happen, erase “no” from your vocabulary. It’s not a real word. Like, it’s just not a thing.

What is the small business community like in New Orleans?

Alison Burns: It’s really growing. There are lot of things going on. There’s New Orleans Entrepreneur Week and that being built up so much. And then there is Silicon Bayou and that is doing so well. You’ve got all these entrepreneurial minded folks coming in, and these techie minded folks, and I think that that part is really cool.

And then, we brought in Collision last year, GNO Inc. brought in Collision, which is America’s biggest tech conference. We took that from Vegas, which is kinda cool. Like, we competed with Vegas and we took that from Vegas. They did so well last year here that they signed a contract for, I think, two more years. So they’ll be here beginning of May. So that brings a lot of folks into the city. I mean, we’re constantly doing stuff like that. So I think that we’re really doing a lot to cultivate an entrepreneurial space. We have lots of incubators now going on. I love all of that stuff, for sure.

Is there anything else that you want people to know about your business?

Alison Burns: We are at www.PrecisionPaymentSystems.com and we also have a Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter page. We would love to work with you! 

Final Thoughts

Sales takes trust.

If you can establish trust with a small business and deliver on your promises, they will not only be loyal, but also be one of your best marketing engines. They will recommend and refer your service, helping you quickly grow your business.

In many ways, sales and marketing is a lot like dating, you have to try different things and learn from your failures. As long as you keep learning and adapt, you will be ok.

If you have any question or comments about today’s episode, please leave a comment below.


Pablo Fuentes

Pablo Fuentes was the Founder and CEO of Proven. He was also the host and producer of the Small Business War Stories podcast. Pablo is currently the Founder of makepath, a spatial analysis firm. He is a graduate of the Stanford Graduate School of Business and UCLA. He loves dogs, film photography, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is also a blues guitar player and builder.

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