Total Merchant Services Review
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- Date Established
- Woodland Hills, CA
When we last reviewed Total Merchant Services (TMS), we were happy to report that the company appeared to be improving and had implemented some of the changes we recommended, even if it still had a ways to go. At the start of 2016, the picture is less promising. TMS has taken several steps back with a significant rise in complaints and a problematic independent sales force.
Founded in 1996 and based out of its Woodland Hills, California, headquarters since 2013, Total Merchant Services serves about 100,000 merchants, making it a medium-large provider.
While there are certainly many larger companies (Elavon serves 1.2 million merchants, to give you an idea of the volume large providers deal with), 100,000 accounts is enough to merit the use of independent agents, apparently. In fact, the company has a pretty convincing website to recruit independent sales agents (ISAs), maybe even better than their main site.
I’m not convinced that Total Merchant Services is providing excellent customer service or great rates, and I wish the company would offer some info about an interchange-plus pricing platform on the site (you can get it through TMS, however). Its questionable sales force (to be addressed later) is a serious concern, and the obvious rise in complaint volume is an indicator that something is wrong. For those reasons, we are dropping TMS from 3.5 stars to 3 stars. I would expect to see some serious improvements before we consider bumping TMS up again.
Read the full review below for more details, or take a look at our comparison chart to see the best of the best in the industry.
Final Note: If you do a Google search for Total Merchant Services, you’ll notice a large number of other sites heavily branded with the TMS logo that appear to be official, but most of those sites are actually set up by individual sales agents of TMS. Don’t be fooled. The official domain for TMS is www.totalmerchantservices.com.
Products and Services:
You’ll find a pretty good selection of products and services at TMS. There’s a comprehensive suite of offerings with all the essentials for businesses of all sizes, including:
- Merchant account
- “Free” terminal/mobile reader: In place of its former free Quickbooks deal, TMS has now opted for a deal that includes a free terminal (and mobile reader). The terminals are Ingenico and support both EMV and NFC contactless payments, so that’s good. However, this is basically a terminal lease, and if you don’t return it in pristine condition, you can expect to pay a hefty price tag. We don’t like terminal leases, because you’re almost always better off just buying the terminal outright. Not only that, but there are a fair number of complaints about how poorly managed the return process (via FedEx) is. Learn more about terminal leases here.
- Check services
- Groovv POS: This is basically TMS’ small business suite of services. You get a POS (it’s a rebranded version of Registroid, which TMS purchased a couple years ago), as well as Groovv Offers (formerly FanMinder, a social media marketing service TMS bought up).
- Virtual terminal: Allows users to processing from any Internet-connected computer with a web-browser.
- Integrated eCommerce support: Sell online as well as in person.
- Mobile processing: TMS offers mobile processing (and a free reader) through Payment Jack for $5 a month (presumably on top of whatever the swipe rate is). However, it’s not EMV compliant. Additional readers are $19.95 (valued at $44). Groovv also offers a mobile swiper that is separate from Payment Jack.
- Mobile/social marketing: FanMinder has been swallowed by Groovv, but the offerings are still essentially the same: Social media, SMS, and email offers that you can send to your customers to drive sales and encourage repeat visits. I like the concept, and I like that it’s integrated with the rest of Groovv. That is definitely where the industry is heading.
- Merchant “advantage” program: This usually covers additional warranties, supplies and special offers. It might even be a good deal for you, but it isn’t always. TMS will give it to you free for 3 months, but then it’ll automatically start charging you $10 per month if you don’t explicitly cancel. If you do cancel, you can expect to pay some additional fees and you’re not eligible to re-enroll for 6 months. Check out what’s included here.
- Loyalty/gift card services: TMS’s loyalty program runs through Groovv Offers.
- Cash advances: These can be a powerful tool for merchants, or a dangerous one. Check out our guide on how to get a good deal on a cash advance.
- Free upgrade program: If you’re already a Total Merchant Services customer, you are eligible for an upgrade to a free Ingenico EMV/NFC terminal. I’m suspicious because where payment processing is concerned, nothing is ever really free. You might have to sign a new contract with an ETF to get the terminal, so be wary
Fees and Rates:
Unfortunately, Total Merchant Services doesn’t offer any information about pricing beyond claims of “low” and “affordable” rates. Depending on whether you set your account up through the corporate office or an independent agent, all rates and fees can vary dramatically. Your business type and processing volume will also affect these numbers, with higher volumes leading to better deals.
I can tell you that TMS does offer interchange-plus pricing as well as seasonal downtime for most merchants, so that’s a plus. However, I’ve seen several mentions of sudden, unexplained monthly minimum fees.
While the Total Merchant Services website advertises “No monthly contract,” I’ve also seen contracts that include early termination fees, and there are, quite predictably, a very high number of complaints about this. But that’s a topic we’ll revisit shortly.
Something else that’s interesting — and something only advertised on the Groovv site — is an offer to meet or beat your current processor’s rate. If Groovv can’t, you get $500. Many merchant account providers offer a similar deal. What this really is, is a ploy to figure out what you’re currently paying for processing.
Groovv is also offering free Apple Pay processing for a full year. I’m guessing that Apple is footing the bill on this one, because it’s got a similar deal with PayAnywhere, and you can get both the Groovv terminal and the PayAnywhere reader from Apple Stores.
Both of these offers are just a little suspect to me — gimmicks are usually meant to distract you from something else, or to hide something, or make you think you’re getting a better deal than you actually are. So ask questions and do your research. If it is in fact a good deal for you, go for it. And then leave a comment and let us know about your experiences!
Contract Length and Early Termination Fee:
Previously, we reported that TMS had done away with its early termination fee (ETF). But something seems to have gone wrong. Way, way wrong. The ETF is back, apparently to be included at the discretion of the sales reps, according to people who claim to be TMS sales reps. And there are an abundance of complaints about this — many merchants who were promised no ETF suddenly find out they do in fact have to pay an ETF. TMS doesn’t appear to be very forgiving about the issue, either, at least not based on the BBB complaints.
Not only that, but you’re signing a multi-year agreement that auto-renews unless you follow a finicky set of steps to cancel. There’s a significant number of complaints about the headache that is trying to cancel your TMS account: Getting forwarded to a cancellation department that never responds, being passed around to other customer support reps or even your sales rep — who might say they’ll cancel the account for you, but don’t (and can’t), leaving you stuck with more fees.
The most recent version of Total Merchant Services’ Terms and Conditions lists the “standard termination fee” at $295. Given this, I must encourage you to be careful. Unless a signed waiver form is attached to your contract, this clause will remain active! Verbal agreements mean precisely jack in this business, so get it in writing.
Sales and Advertising Transparency:
This ETF issue is precisely why we’re always wary of companies that use independent sellers. Many of them are desperate for a sale, and they’ll promise you the world to get you to sign that piece of paper. Once you’re locked into a contract, it’s no longer their problem. There are a lot of complaints about agents who sign people up and then disappear into the wind, never to return a phone call again, and a fair number about agents that pushed people into signing agreements before they even fully understood what they were agreeing to. Do your research, and don’t let anyone push you into something you aren’t sure of.
Companies that promise big bonuses for signing people up for accounts can often become more concerned about acquiring those new accounts, not maintaining them. And with a $300 ETF fee plus whatever else TMS wants to tack on, plus dubious customer support, trying to get out of the deal can be a daunting, difficult, or just plain expensive option.
It’s nice that TMS takes care of its agents. Sales is a tough, grueling, high-stress field. But the lack of transparency around TMS is just horrible. Not only does it seem like the sales reps are out of control, but when you press the “I Agree” button online on the TMS site, you’re essentially signing a contract. And TMS likes to hide behind that contract. Look for those little links that say “Terms” or “Terms and Conditions” and read them before you press anything that even looks like an “I agree” button. Seriously, folks. This is important.
Want to see the kinds of deals that TMS offers its sales team? Check them out here.
All of that said, I like that the company publicly discloses its Terms and Conditions in the Merchant Resources section of its site. Some processors make it very difficult to get a copy of their standard contract terms before you apply.
One last point that TMS doesn’t make very clear: you must return your equipment within 10 days of the contract ending, or else you have to pay for it — and you’ll have to pay whatever they say it’s worth. You can count on them not to underestimate the value. A couple of complaints on the BBB indicate that you could pay $500 or more in some situations.
Something that usually indicates how well a company is performing is how active its press page and blog are. TMS hasn’t updated its press page since 2013, and while there are a couple of more recent articles, all of them are more focused on company culture and resources for sales agents — which is more a part of a good recruiting strategy than a way to attract more customers. The TMS blog is still active and the content is of decent quality, though publishing frequency seems to be dropping off.
News coverage and a blog are crucial to a good marketing strategy. The blog in particular is such a useful tool for consumer education, and a good way to showcase how a company is innovating and improving its offerings. Sharing information, either in a blog post or in a news story, is also a good indicator of transparency. So while these are certainly low-ranking concerns, they’re not something we ignore.
Customer Service and Technical Support:
TMS offers 24/7 “Terminal Support,” which covers any problems with your terminal. I haven’t been able to confirm that the company offers general support 24/7 as well, but you do get both phone and email, as well as a somewhat disappointing FAQs page. If you have experience with the support offered by Total, please leave me a comment! As a reviewer, it’s difficult to assess how TMS handles complex problems, so I rely on our readers to help me fill in the blanks here and keep the review as accurate as possible. The number of complaints about the quality of service makes it seem like TMS leaves much to be desired.
Negative Reviews and Complaints:
The previous BBB page for Total Merchant Services was taken down in 2013, which makes calculating and comparing the volume of complaints a bit difficult, but still doable. When we checked in with TMS in June 2014, there were just 27 closed complaints — that was for 1 year, about on par with the 98 in 3 years that we noted in 2013, before the page reset.
The closed complaint volume on TMS’ BBB page has increased to 195 in the past three years — that’s nearly double the 3-year count in 2013. Worse, 109 of those complaints happened in the last year. That’s 3 times the number of 2014 complaints.
Plus, you will also find about 30 separate BBB accounts listed for independent offices. It’s so hard to adequately get a picture of everything with so much of the information scattered around the web, and the sales force consisting primarily of independent sales agents. Still, it’s safe to say complaints to the BBB are on the rise. Beyond the BBB, there are 57 complaints through Ripoff Reports (up from 37 at the last review).
Common complaints include:
- Unethical independent agents: While I really believe that TMS tries to give its agents the tools needed to serve merchants well, I also know that it isn’t turning too many potential sales people away. If you called tomorrow and wanted to be a sales agent, TMS would probably take you. Does that mean you’d make a good agent? Not necessarily. Since the rigors of the typical employee hiring process are removed, some bad eggs get through. Given the rise in complaints and the fact that a significant number of them reference shady sales practices or mysterious sales reps, I think there might be more bad eggs than there were in previous years. That’s not to say every single sales rep is to be mistrusted. But you should always deal with the company directly when you can, and do your research on the independent representative you choose.
- Poor customer service: While TMS advertises “Unparalleled Customer Service,” I’m not convinced. A ton of complaints I’ve read include qualms about customer service, and the company isn’t doing much to convince me it’s getting the job done in this department. A frequent point of contention in BBB complaints is being passed from department to department, as well as unhelpful, even rude customer support. My advice here is to sign up with a high-quality agent who can be your point of contact within the business when you have problems. If you need help finding a good agent within TMS or a sales rep for another provider, we can help.
- Undisclosed, unexpected fees and high processing costs: This, along with the sales reps and poor quality service, is one of the most common complaints, and it’s also our least favorite thing to see at Merchant Maverick. When you are quote a rate, that’s what you should pay. Random tacked-on fees can add up and seriously hurt a merchant’s bottom line. Some merchants have been assessed a monthly minimum fee, which seems not only to vary by merchant, but also by month in some instances.
- Shady gimmicks: More than a few merchants complained about being promised a “free trial” or a “no-obligation” trial period that their sales reps have offered. Then people call to cancel and find out they’re locked into a contract and the support team denies any knowledge of such offers. The Merchant Advantage program is free at first, but not something you have to opt into, and there are penalties for opting out.
- Problems returning equipment: This came up with enough frequency that it merits mentioning. If you opt for the free terminal deal, you’re essentially leasing the equipment, and if you close your account, you must return the terminals. However, there seem to be some issues with the return process — whether it’s items that are lost in transit or charges that appear after the device is returned, or shipping labels that never seem to arrive. Free terminals are often a bad deal, and you’re typically better just buying them outright.
The thing I like the least, out of all these complaints, is this: Just reviewing the BBB responses makes my skin crawl. Square sounds more human when responding to BBB complaints — even the ones in which it reiterates that it can terminate an account for any reason, or no reason at all. This is unforgiving and unyielding customer support that doesn’t seem to care if its reps lie because TMS can hide behind its electronic agreement. I honestly can’t say with confidence that going through the BBB will actually help you solve your problem, and I really don’t like that.
Positive Reviews and Testimonials:
You won’t find any testimonials or reviews on the TMS site — not from merchants anyway. You will find a section for sales agent testimonials. I’m always a little disappointed when I see this, since I much prefer to see a few kind words from merchants. However, you will find a few very basic testimonials on the Groovv site on the Offers product page as well as single video testimonial on its YouTube page.
Overall, you won’t see too many people going out of their way to say nice things about Total Merchant Services publicly, but you will find a number of sales agents who seem sincerely proud to offer the TMS products (including in our comments section below). This means less to me than hearing from merchants directly, but it does mean something. It’s not that we think every sales rep is dishonest — just that there’s not a lot of transparency and probably limited oversight for a large sales team.
It’s always nice when a service provider we review makes an honest improvement. It makes us happy to be able to recommend a good quality service.
And that’s why it’s sad to see TMS take a significant step backward. It’s hard for us to have confidence in the quality of its sales team, as well as the promises it makes to merchants. The customer service is dubious at best. Worse, will you get what you were promised? Possibly. But there’s a significant chance you won’t, either.
Total Merchant Services has just about everything a small business needs, as well as larger businesses. Groovv, and everything it entails, is keeping pace with industry developments. But the cost could be significant, and being locked into a contract with an ETF, not to mention a terminal lease, is not worth the hassle.
We’re lowering Total Merchant Services to 3 stars. Beware of any gimmicks. Do your research, and get everything in writing. If TMS is working for you, please let us know! If not, tell us about that, too.
If you want to know what it takes to get a five-star review from us, check out our comparison chart for some examples. Thanks for reading!
Have something to say about Total Merchant Services? Leave your insights or experience in a comment.