Total Merchant Services Review
This merchant accounts provider suffers from expensive fees and a lack of a transparency, but may be a good choice if customer service is your top priority.
- PCI-compliant solution
- Free processing hardware available
- Good customer support
- No publicly disclosed pricing information
- Long-term contract likely in exchange for “free” equipment
- Expensive early termination fee (ETF)
- Numerous public complaints alleging dishonest sales practices
Total Merchant Services Overview
Total Merchant Services (TMS) is one of the larger and more established companies in the payments processing industry, having been around since 1996. TMS was acquired by North American Bancard in 2017, but continues to operate under its original business name.
Like many merchant services providers, TMS utilizes a combination of third-party products and services for many different aspects of its payments features. Transaction processing, for example, is handled by Global Payments, while the company’s payment gateway offering comes from Authorize.Net. Its Payanywhere line of credit card terminals and POS systems, however, are developed in-house.
TMS also “follows the herd” of traditional merchant services providers in other ways as well. One particularly problematic area is the company’s reliance on independent sales agents to sell its accounts, which has resulted in a high number of public complaints alleging dishonest and even unethical sales practices on the part of many of these agents. The company also follows a recent trend in the processing industry in offering merchants a “free” credit card terminal or POS system with their accounts. Unfortunately, these offers almost invariably require you to agree to a standard three-year contract that comes with a hefty early termination fee (ETF) if you close your account early.
You also won’t find any pricing information on the company’s website. While this practice is fairly common, it requires you to contact the TMS sales department and obtain a pricing quote that’s customized for your business. You can usually obtain lower rates and more flexible contract terms than what you’re initially offered, but rest assured that the company’s sales agents will do their best to pressure you to sign up for their initial offer – often before you’ve had a chance to even read the terms of your proposed contract.
Overall, Total Merchant Services earns a score of 3 out of 5 stars. While it’s not better or worse than many of its competitors, there just isn’t much value here for small business owners. Check out our Merchant Account Comparison Chart for some much better alternatives.
Table of Contents
- TMS Credit Card Processing Features & Services
- Total Merchant Services Fees & Rates
- Contract Length & Early Termination Fee
- Sales & Advertising Transparency
- Customer Service & Technical Support
- TMS Customer Reviews, Complaints & Testimonials
- Credit Card Processing Alternatives To Total Merchant Services
- Final Verdict
TMS Credit Card Processing Features & Services
TMS offers a pretty broad selection of products and services for payment card processing that are designed for businesses of all sizes. These products and services include:
- Merchant Accounts: As we’ve noted above, TMS is not a direct processor. The company uses Global Payments for this function. Most customer service functions, however, will be handled by Total Merchant Services representatives.
- Security Features: Online fraud is on the rise, and most providers now go to great lengths to tout all the different features they offer to keep your account secure. TMS doesn’t follow this trend, offering surprisingly vague information about its security features. The company touts EMV processing hardware as if it’s still a new thing, and only briefly mentions features such as TLS encryption and PCI compliance for online transactions.
Hardware For Retail Merchants
- “Free” Countertop Terminal Or Mobile Reader: TMS offers an assortment of free hardware, but it’s a little vague on what “free” means. A majority of its free hardware is Payanywhere hardware, and we know that Payanywhere only offers “free placement.” The “free placement,” in turn, means that it is just a zero-dollar lease such that you’ll have to return the hardware immediately when you terminate your processing agreement with TMS. The company also advertises basic countertop terminals such as the Ingenico iCT220 and Verifone VX520, both of which support magstripe, EMV, and NFC-based payment methods. The wireless Verifone VX680 is also available. While all of these devices are advertised as being available as “free placement,” you’ll most likely have to pay extra (around $20 per month) for the wireless data plan that the VX680 requires. Including a “free” terminal with a new account has been the processing industry’s response to numerous complaints about its equipment leasing practices. However, these offers invariably come with a hidden cost, either in the form of a long-term contract or higher processing rates. The process for returning equipment after account closure has also generated many complaints from merchants. Check out our article, The Best Credit Card Machines & Terminals For Small Business, for more information on processing hardware options.
- Point Of Sale (POS) Systems: TMS offers several POS systems, which are also available as a “free” placement. Again, be aware that there will always be some form of hidden cost associated with this offer. Available models include the following:
- Payanywhere Smart Terminal: This portable option will let you swipe, dip, or tap payments as well as take PIN debit cards. It also has a built-in receipt printer and barcode scanner.
- Payanywhere Smart Flex: This option has a fuller screen size and includes the magstripe, EMV reader, and NFC payments, just like the Smart Terminal, but the larger screen gives you the ability to let your customers interact and see what they are purchasing, plus you get the built-in receipt printer and barcode scanner you may need.
- Payanywhere Smart POS+: This sturdy countertop POS allows you to swipe, dip and tap as well as take PIN payments. This POS also has a built-in receipt printer, barcode scanner, and a customer-facing second screen.
- Mobile Processing: For a simple mobile reader, TMS offers the free Payanywhere 2-in-1 Bluetooth Credit Card Reader, which accepts magstripe or EMV payments. A 3-in-1 Bluetooth Credit Card Reader is also available that adds support for NFC-based payment methods (such as Apple Pay and Samsung Pay). Because TMS includes a virtual terminal with its mobile processing, you can also securely take payments online, by phone, or key in a payment anytime you may need to do so. Although the Payanywhere devices include many of the same features you’ll find with Square, we’ve found that Square is an overall better choice for most small business owners.
Software For eCommerce Merchants
- Payment Gateway: The TMS payment gateway offers a hosted payment page, integration with your website’s shopping cart, and support for recurring billing. In the back end, the gateway is hosted by either of the two NAB-owned gateways — Velocity or Inovio. Per the TMS support page, TMS also supports the Authorize.Net gateway. In other words, you’ll have choices if you decide you need a gateway. The gateways are offered for a “low price,” so be sure to ask about the cost if you’re considering TMS as your processor. Note that other processors offer payment gateways for free.
- Virtual Terminal: In addition to the virtual terminal function built into the Payanywhere mobile card readers, you can also access the virtual terminal function that’s built into the Authorize.Net payment gateway. Virtual terminals are very handy for telephone and mail order businesses, or any other business that needs to manually key in credit card transactions.
- Developer Portal: Total Merchant Services has an integrated payment suite that includes APIs and SDKs so that you can integrate EMV and PCI-compliant payments into your existing software, app, or website. This service is with Velocity, so be aware of additional costs you may incur with integration.
- Loyalty/Gift Card Programs: TMS partners with another third-party service, OnDemand, to offer custom gift cards.
- Merchant Cash Advances: These can be a powerful tool for merchants – or a dangerous one. A cash advance acts as a loan from your processor that’s repaid through a portion of your daily credit card sales and automatically deducted from your merchant account. It’s not for everyone, but it can be beneficial under some circumstances. Check out our guide, How To Get A Good Deal On A Cash Advance Loan, for more information.
- Transaction Reporting & Product Warranty Through Payments Hub: Payments Hub is an online portal that offers a product warranty for your processing equipment (but why would you need a warranty for free equipment?), automatic supply shipping, payment card transaction data/analysis, and a virtual terminal (this is the third virtual terminal you can get through TMS through various sale packages, some for free and others for a fee). Payments Hub is not free. You may be automatically signed up for this service, so be sure you understand the fee or cancel before TMS starts to charge you.
- Payments Hub Insights: The Payments Hub portal can also help you analyze sales/customer data based on your location, monitor online reviews of your products and services, and track your competitors’ marketing activities. All for an extra fee, of course.
Total Merchant Services Fees & Rates
As we’ve mentioned above, TMS does not disclose any pricing information on its website. Instead, you’ll find an incredibly vague claim that the company offers “the best credit card processing rates in the industry.” Seriously.
Meaningless marketing claims like this are one of the reasons that the merchant services industry is frequently compared to a used car lot. However, you shouldn’t dismiss it out of hand. This is a warning (albeit an unintentional one) that the company will try to lure you in with a promise of low processing rates, then tack on a bewildering assortment of additional fees – often without telling you about them. Worse yet, you might initially be offered ‘teaser’ rates that increase dramatically once you’re a few months into your long-term contract.
So, what will you really have to pay? Feedback from merchants indicates that the company offers both tiered and interchange-plus pricing plans, with rates being highly variable and subject to negotiation. Flat-rate pricing is also available for small businesses that just want a mobile processing-only solution through Payanywhere. Be aware that your sales agent will usually try to sign you up for a tiered pricing plan, as they’re more expensive and thus more profitable for the company. We strongly encourage you to negotiate for an interchange-plus plan, which will usually save you money and give you a clearer idea of what you’re really paying for processing.
Like processing rates, account fees are highly variable and subject to negotiation. At a minimum, you can expect the following recurring and incidental fees to be included in your contract:
- Monthly Account Fee: Unless you’re on a flat-rate plan, you’ll usually pay at least $10 per month to maintain your account.
- Annual Account Fee: This fee is only assessed once a year, supposedly to cover things like service upgrades and other items. It’s usually around $80-$100 a year.
- Monthly Minimum: This will usually be around $25 per month. Monthly minimums can be expensive for very small or seasonal businesses, so try to negotiate a lower amount for this fee or a waiver during your off-season (if appropriate).
- PCI Compliance Fee: This can be billed on either a monthly or annual basis, and will typically cost you a total of around $100 per year.
- PCI Non-Compliance Fee: You’ll only pay this fee if your account becomes non-compliant, typically because your Self-Assessment Questionnaire has expired. However, you shouldn’t expect TMS to warn you ahead of time about this penalty. The company will happily deduct your PCI compliance and non-compliance fees until you figure out what’s happening and get back into compliance. Non-compliance fees usually run around $30 per month for every month that your account is out of compliance.
- Chargeback Fee: Expect to pay $25 for each chargeback, regardless of whether you prevail in the investigation or not.
- Early Termination Fee (ETF): This fee will only be charged if you’re on a long-term contract and you close your account before the end of the current term. However, it’s a whopping $295 (or more), so you’ll want to avoid it. See below for more details on how contracts with TMS work.
Note that there are many other miscellaneous fees and charges that might show up on your billing statement. We’re particularly concerned about numerous reports from merchants alleging that their sales agents signed them up for optional services without their knowledge or consent. Your best defense against this sort of unethical behavior is to read your contract very carefully before you sign up.
Contract Length & Early Termination Fee
In the past, TMS has included a “no long-term contracts” claim on its website. While this claim has now been deleted, there is still plenty of emphasis on the company’s “free” terminal placement program on its site. We also continue to see complaints from merchants who were charged an early termination fee when they closed their accounts.
It appears that new merchants will have a choice when they sign up: either accept a long-term contract in exchange for a “free” terminal or POS system, or bring their own equipment and enjoy a month-to-month contract with no ETF. Unfortunately, this choice is often deliberately obscured by sales agents, who stand to earn a higher commission if they can persuade the merchant to accept the free equipment and the long-term contract. TMS has also recently deleted links to sample contracts from its website, so you’ll have to study the provisions of your proposed Merchant Agreement very carefully to confirm that it matches up with whatever terms your sales agent promised you.
If you are lured in by the promise of “free” hardware, be aware that you will also have to accept a standard three-year contract with an early termination fee of around $295. These contracts also include an automatic renewal clause that will extend your contract by one-year periods after the initial three-year term is up.
Sales & Advertising Transparency
Total Merchant Services uses commission-based sales agents to sell its services, and you must contact TMS sales to get a quote for your business.
Because independent sales agents are compensated based on how many merchants they sign up, individual experiences will vary depending on the agent. While we are sure there are ethical and knowledgeable independent sellers out there, many others are desperate for a sale. They’ll promise you the world to get you to sign on the dotted line. Once you’re locked into a contract, it’s no longer their problem. We see a lot of complaints about agents who sign people up and then disappear into the wind never again to return a phone call, and a fair number about agents who pushed people into signing agreements before they even fully understood what they were agreeing to. So do your research, and don’t let anyone push you into something you aren’t sure of.
We also have some serious reservations about the company’s “free” equipment placement program. Like most such offers, this appears to be something of a bait-and-switch proposition, where you’ll ultimately have to choose between either a month-to-month contract with no early termination fee, or accepting a long-term contract in exchange for what is really loaned processing equipment. If you close your account, you’ll need to return your “free” terminal to TMS within 15 days to avoid being charged the full value of the equipment. Like many other providers that offer “free” terminals, there are plenty of complaints from merchants who returned their terminals promptly but were charged hundreds of dollars anyway after TMS claimed that it never received the equipment.
Customer Service & Technical Support
TMS offers customer support by phone, email, and online documentation. It also provides 24/7 merchant support staff.
The TMS customer support phone number and other contact information are very easy to find on its website. That’s a big plus. According to customer reviews, while customers sometimes get bounced around a bit, the issues that aren’t resolved seem to go to its deliberately impressive-sounding “Presidential Unit.” This is probably a unit for escalation with higher settlement authority than lower-level customer service personnel. (This is not a unique practice in the customer service field.)
When you do reach the Presidential Unit, they do a good job of reviewing complaints. Impressively, they’ve addressed every one of the BBB complaints in the last two years. They are courteous and fair, compensating merchants when they can, but also not backing down when the merchant is unreasonable at demanding compensation. They investigate each complaint, going through the contracts, recorded phone calls, and other written communication.
The truth is, though, that there are a lot of customer complaints about TMS. While the customer support team seems to be doing a good job, they are merely putting out fires started by other departments. In most cases, the fires were started by unscrupulous sales agents who failed to disclose fees, especially early termination fees and equipment return requirements.
If you have had experience with the support offered by TMS, please leave us a comment! As a reviewer, it’s difficult to assess how TMS handles complex problems, so we rely on our readers to help us fill in the blanks here and keep the review as accurate as possible.
TMS Customer Reviews, Complaints & Testimonials
Negative Total Merchant Services Reviews & Complaints
Total Merchant Services has been accredited by the BBB since 2013 and has an A+ rating. The company has received 30 complaints within the last three years, with eleven of those complaints coming in during the last twelve months. Although its overall complaint volume has dropped since our last review update, there is still a clear pattern of common problems that merchants encounter with TMS, including the following issues that came up frequently:
- Undisclosed & Unexpected Fees, Especially Early Termination Fees: The majority of the complaints had to do with some sort of fee dispute. This is usually related to the merchant being surprised by an early termination fee. Many did not realize that when they signed a contract, that contract was for several years (likely three years) with automatic renewals and early termination fees. Other fee-related complaints involve surprise fees/charges that the merchants were not told about by the independent sales agents. Some merchants discover the fee quickly and want it removed. Other merchants only realize they were missing money many months after mysterious charges had been deducted from their merchant account, so they belatedly demand a refund. The customer support team would often investigate the merchant’s file before offering a settlement amount. Typically, TMS would refund markups and stand firm about refunding wholesale fees. TMS tends not to refund fees that the merchant had been paying for years and claim that they didn’t know they were paying. (That’s why it’s so important to be aware of any monthly subscription programs that your processor signs you up for when you open the account. We have seen this sort of complaint a lot at Merchant Maverick relating to a variety of lackluster companies.)
- Unethical Independent Agents: The root of many of the complaints comes from the behavior of independent sales agents. Some customers recount stories of being pushed into giving their application information “just to see” if they can be approved. Others find, to their horror, that they were signed up to multi-year contracts with early termination fees when they agreed to no such thing. One or two were even unknowingly signed up by agents over the phone without their permission (although sometimes customer service was able to find contracts with signatures), or they were signed up to contract terms different from what they discussed with their sales agents.
- Problems Returning Equipment: If you opt for the “free” terminal offer, you’re essentially borrowing the equipment, and if you close your account, you must return the terminals promptly. However, there are clearly some issues with the return process – whether it’s items that get lost in transit, 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 off just buying them outright. Again, this is not an uncommon issue with providers that offer “free” equipment.
- Fees Charged During COVID-19 Lockdowns: Many of the recent complaints against TMS allege that merchants were charged the full array of monthly and annual fees, even when their businesses were temporarily closed to comply with government-directed shutdowns as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this sort of behavior is reprehensible, we’d note that it’s ultimately your responsibility as a merchant to inform your processor of this situation as soon as you’re forced to shut down. You’ll only have a valid complaint if you notify your processor and it continues to enforce the fee schedule set forth in your contract.
Positive Reviews & Testimonials
We found a larger pool of positive reviews on the Consumer Affairs site. Overall, merchants praised the attentive and easy-to-reach customer service team. However, even those who gave overall positive 4 or 5-star reviews noted that they had some surprises or frustrations regarding fees that they were charged.
We do like that many positive reviews are from merchants who have had an account with TMS for upwards of a decade. That indicates stability in the fees and overall good customer care.
Credit Card Processing Alternatives To Total Merchant Services
If you’ve read this far, you may be starting to feel that TMS is not the right company for you. That’s perfectly understandable, given all the problems we’ve found with its sales practices. Fortunately, you do have better choices available. If you’re looking for a reputable provider that offers transparent pricing, ethical sales practices, and fairly-priced equipment, we recommend taking a closer look at the following choices:
While it’s not as well-known as some of its larger competitors, CDGcommerce is one of the few providers in the industry to specifically cater to the needs of small businesses. The company offers true month-to-month billing on all accounts, and a set of standardized pricing plans that run the gamut of flat-rate, interchange-plus, and even membership pricing options. Processing hardware options aren’t as robust as what you’ll find elsewhere, but you can add a basic terminal to your account in exchange for a $79 annual insurance fee that also covers equipment upgrades.
Dharma Merchant Services
In terms of sales and marketing practices, Dharma Merchant Services is the polar opposite of TMS. Employing an in-house sales team, the company offers interchange-plus rates to all merchants and fully discloses its rates and account fees on its website. Billing is month-to-month, with no long-term contracts or early termination fees – ever. If you’re interested in the popular Clover line of terminals and POS systems, you’ll be happy to know that Dharma is one of our top choices among Clover resellers. Unlike the majority of providers on the market, Dharma has actually received praise from merchants for its top-notch customer service.
Our one caveat with Dharma is that the company fully discloses that its pricing works best for businesses that process at least $10,000 per month. If your business has a lower sales volume, the company recommends Square as a more affordable alternative.
Square has become a household name among business owners, and is often an excellent choice for small or newly-launched businesses. Originally providing only mobile processing services for the retail sector, the company has expanded its product lineup over the years and is now a viable choice for online businesses as well.
With Square, you’ll get predictable flat-rate pricing, true month-to-month billing, and very affordable hardware options. Billing is pay-as-you-go, so you won’t see any surprise fees on your monthly processing statement. What you won’t get, of course, is a true, full-service merchant account with a unique merchant ID number for your business. While this usually won’t be a problem, there is an elevated risk of a sudden account shutdown if you process an unusually large transaction. Customer service is also somewhat limited, although the company has significantly improved in this area in recent years.
While Total Merchant Services may be an adequate choice for a large business that’s experienced in negotiating with payment processors and has the leverage to demand lower rates, we cannot recommend the company to most small business owners. Problems related to the use of independent sales agents, lack of pricing information, and the misleading nature of the company’s “free” equipment offer all combine to lower TMS’ overall score down to the mediocre level.
On the positive side, TMS offers a variety of solid products and services for businesses of any size. The addition of Payanywhere hardware and software is a positive step in meeting the needs of smaller businesses. Customer service, while not outstanding, appears to be better than the industry average.
Unfortunately, these positive features are more than offset by the many negative factors you’ll have to deal with as a TMS customer. Previously, you could find a sample contract on the website to look at before you signed up. We can no longer find one, so we can’t go through it and point out areas you might wish to consider or get clarified.
If you contact TMS, there’s a good chance you’ll end up dealing with an independent agent who’s more interested in closing the deal by any means necessary than in getting you the best possible terms. Early termination fees that may or may not be included in your contract, “free” terminals that actually lock you into a long-term contract, and surprise fees not disclosed by the sales agent can all be time-consuming and difficult to deal with. Given that many other credit card processors offer transparent pricing and ethical sales practices, we think you’re better off just staying away from TMS in the first place.
At the moment, Total Merchant Services scores just 3 out of 5 stars. If you do opt to go with TMS, beware of possible sales gimmicks, do your research, read the contract carefully, and, most importantly, get everything in writing. If you’ve had any experience with TMS, good or bad, please let us know about it in the Comments section below.
We've done in-depth research on each and confidently recommend them.
We've done in-depth research on each and confidently recommend them.