Total Merchant Services Review
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- Date Established
- Woodland Hills, CA
- Free credit card terminal and readers
- Free mobile processing app
- Free point of sale software (including gateway/virtual terminal)
- Early termination fee
- Numerous public complaints
- Deceptive sales tactics
- Deceptive advertising
- No pricing disclosed online
- Use of independent sales agents leading to lack of accountability
- No contract disclosed online
Total Merchant Services (TMS) is a merchant account provider headquartered in Woodland Hills, California. Founded in 1996, TMS is one of the more established companies in the processing business. It’s also one of the larger companies in the industry, having serviced about 500,000 merchants since its founding.
Since our last review in 2017, TMS was bought out by North American Bancard (NAB). As a result, there have been quite a few changes as NAB integrated its other businesses into TMS’s offerings. For instance, the free hardware from TMS now comes from PayAnywhere, and one of the gateway providers is Velocity. NAB owns both of these companies.
Bigger isn’t always better, however. TMS seems to have always contracted with third parties on different aspects of payment card processing, bundled these services into packages and then sold the packaged services to merchants through independent sales agents (i.e., more contractors). Under this business model, quality control is always an issue because it is extremely difficult to control the details of what your contractors do or say. While the sale to NAB brought many of TMS’s services in-house, from customer complaints on various websites, we continue to see issues with these services.
Notably, it is clear from customer complaints that TMS continues to suffer from an over-reliance on independent sales agents, many of whom are poorly-trained or downright unethical — or both. Compared to in-house sales departments, independent sales agents are under more pressure to close the deal with a prospective merchant, as their paycheck depends almost entirely on it. TMS manages to make a bad problem even worse by actively recruiting independent agents to work for them, offering a recruiting website that’s more informative than its main site. (Technically, the recruiting site is for recruiting NAB sales agents, but the TMS site links to it.)
When independent sales agents over promise and under deliver, you tend to see a lot of customer complaints. That is the case with TMS, which has an abnormally high number of complaints with the BBB and other review websites. While TMS has made an effort to address and resolve each complaint since the NAB buyout, at the end of the day, customer service is rarely the root of the problem — they merely try to solve the problems created by other departments/contractors of the company.
With TMS, it seems the problems run deep. Many complaints involve the early termination fee, which TMS in the past claimed it had eliminated, but that claim is no longer on its website.
TMS does not publish any rates on its website. It merely claims that it has “the best credit card processing rates in the industry.” To find out what those rates might be, you will have to contact TMS and would likely have to deal with an independent sales agent.
TMS’s questionable sales force (to be addressed in more detail later) is a serious concern, and the unusually high complaint volume is an indicator that something is wrong. This hasn’t changed since our last review. For these reasons, our score for TMS remains at a very average 3 out of 5 stars. The company will have to show some huge improvements to receive a higher rating in future review updates.
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.
Table of Contents
Products & Services
TMS offers a pretty broad selection of products and services for payment card processing and more, flexibly designed for businesses of all sizes. These products and services include:
- Merchant Accounts: Credit/debit card processing is done through one of three processors, including Global Payments and NAB’s own EPX. The charges are not disclosed, and, from the sales agent website, this appears to be deliberate, so the agents can have the greatest flexibility to negotiate with you to bring you in as a new account. (All the agent has to do is beat your existing price, not necessarily give you the lowest price they can offer.) From the agent’s website, it does appear that flat-rate pricing is available. Whether flat-rate pricing is right for your business, however, depends on several factors, such as your volume and your average transaction size. We have an article on processing rates and fees if you wish to have a quick refresher.
- “Free” Terminal/Mobile Reader: TMS offers an assortment of free hardware. 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 when you terminate your processing agreement with TMS. TMS also has free countertop terminals from Ingenico and Verifone, and both brands support magstripe, EMV, and NFC and include a PIN pad. Even though the TMS website calls these “free” devices, from reviewing customer complaints, we believe these are zero-dollar leases as well. So when you end your processing agreement and if you don’t return the terminal in pristine condition, you will likely get charged for the hardware, as per standard industry practice. We don’t like terminal leases because you’re almost always better off just buying the terminal outright. Not only that, there are a fair number of complaints about how poorly managed the return process (via FedEx) is. Learn more about terminal leases here.
- Point Of Sale: TMS offers several POS systems, with most, if not all, of them available for free. Since the NAB purchase, the primary POS system offered by TMS is the PayAnywhere system. The system appears to be quite good and certainly has the features of a top-of-the-line POS system in the marketplace today. TMS offers a second POS system from MICROS that is specifically designed for the hospitality industry. It’s unclear if this system is provided for free, and there’s very little information on the main TMS website about the system (more information can be found on the sales agent site). Lastly — and this seems like a legacy system — TMS continues to support Groovv POS, which was the primary POS that TMS offered before the NAB purchase.
- Payment Gateway: The TMS payment gateway offers a virtual terminal, recurring billing, hosted pay page, and integration with your website’s shopping cart. In the back end, the gateway is hosted by either of the two NAB-owned gateways — Velocity or Inovio. From the TMS support page, it seems that 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 gateways for free.
- Mobile Processing: TMS offers the full suite of PayAnywhere mobile processing, including readers, apps, and an online portal. This is a full-featured mPOS suite, and you can read more about it in our PayAnywhere review. The readers are free, and if you read the webpage carefully, certain portions of the online portal are free. The portal has added inventory and management functionality, however, and it’s unclear if these are free as well — be sure to ask your salesperson about the charges and, if they claim the functionalities are free, make sure they write this down on your application. Note that the portal comes with a gateway, which may or may not be free. Ask your salesperson to make sure!
- Loyalty/Gift Card Services: TMS can help you print and manage gift cards as well as customer loyalty programs. With the loyalty program, you can offer rewards/points, buyer clubs, and straight discounts or rebates on purchases. This value-added program is available for an additional fee.
- Cash Advances: These can be a powerful tool for merchants or a dangerous one. It 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 on how to get a good deal on a cash advance.
- 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 some for a fee). Payments Hub is not free. You are automatically signed up for 60 days unless you cancel, 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.
As a final note, TMS claims it is also available in Canada, but the link on the TMS website to the Canadian website does not work. An internet search reveals that there appears to be a Canadian payment card wholesaler who carries TMS services, but that information is only available on this wholesaler’s Facebook page. TMS is not mentioned on the wholesaler’s website. In other words, TMS’s claim of a Canadian service is confusing and detracts from its credibility as a company.
Fees & Rates
Unfortunately, Total Merchant Services doesn’t offer any information about pricing beyond claims of “low” and “affordable” rates. If you go on the recruiting website for its independent sales agents, you’ll see that TMS offers all sorts of pricing structures, including a flat-fee structure. However, even that website discloses very little — which makes sense because TMS wants its sales agents to have flexibility in negotiating the actual rates without always having to give the lowest rates.
There are three payment processors TMS works through, including EPX, which is wholly owned by NAB. This suggests that TMS has a great deal of flexibility in negotiating its rates and fees and probably can offer merchants a variety of fee structures, from flat fees to interchange-plus to tiered pricing. We, therefore, suspect that it can indeed match or beat your existing processor’s rates most of the time. Ultimately, though, TMS won’t be interested in giving you the lowest rates from the start. So if you decide to talk to TMS, go through its fees and rates carefully, making sure that the rates and fees offered to you are written down so that the sales agent can’t back out of the offer. But also keep in mind that you can get clearly stated rates and fees, great deals on hardware, and month-to-month agreements from any of our top-rated processors instead.
Sales & Advertising Transparency
Other than terms such as “the best credit card processing rates in the industry” on the TMS website, TMS does not disclose its prices online. Instead, it uses a nation-wide network of independent sellers to sell its services, and you must contact TMS sales to get a quote for your business. We at Merchant Maverick do not like either practice.
Independent sales agents don’t get paid unless they make a sale, which tends to breed dishonest sales practices. 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 that piece of paper or hit “I Agree” on that electronic form. 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.
TMS does try to take care of its independent sales agents. Part of this is not to reveal pricing on its website, thereby giving agents the greatest amount of flexibility in offering you a better deal while still maximizing the agent’s profit. TMS also offers its sales agents a bonus of up to $1,000 with $400 upfront for signing up a new merchant to the PayAnywhere service. This might be good for the agent, but it is not necessarily good for you, the merchant. Since we at Merchant Maverick write for merchants, this sort of sales tactic and lack of advertising transparency does affect a company’s review score.
TMS offers many ways for its sales agents to bring in new accounts aggressively. From the agent website, one way to help merchants switch to TMS is to reimburse the merchant any early termination fees from their existing processor. There’s no information on whether there’s an upper limit to the reimbursement. If you are offered this program, be sure to set the numbers out clearly, so you don’t end up paying anything extra out of pocket.
We want to point out something that we see in customer complaints but do not see on the TMS website: the “free” equipment that you’ll get from signing up but that likely aren’t actually free — once you stop processing payments through TMS, there’s a time limit by which you must return the equipment, or you might get charged for it. We couldn’t find any sort of disclosure on the TMS website, so be sure to look for the details in the contract or ask your sales agent so that you know what you must do to return the equipment.
Something that usually indicates how well a company is performing is how active its press page and blog are. There are no dates to the blogs, so we don’t know how often new materials are added. As to the press page, there’s some activity, but not anything typical of a growing company that puts out press releases on new products or increased sales. There are a handful of articles written by NAB executives published in various smaller presses for each of the past few years. Given that in our last review, we called out that there was no new news for four years, at least TMS/NAB is trying to be more active on this front, which is a positive change.
Contract Length & Early Termination Fee
In the previous version of our TMS review, we mentioned that TMS touted it had no early termination fee (ETF). However, even back then, we expressed skepticism that this was actually the case, based on all the customer complaints. When we reviewed both the TMS website and the complaints when preparing for this review update, we found that the “no early termination fee” language is no longer on the TMS website, but the customers continue to complain about ETF. This suggests that TMS does indeed have an ETF in its contract.
Speaking of the TMS contract, we cannot find a copy on its website. This is a change since our last review. While it was not easy, we were able to find copies of contracts on the TMS website as of about two years ago. Now, those links are gone.
From its independent agent website and customer complaints, we do know that the standard TMS contract is an online form that a merchant can fill out. TMS calls the process “Simplified Enrollment” and touts it as “the best online merchant application process in the business.” Apparently, this means that agents can sign merchants up quickly, but this also means that merchants are perhaps not given the time needed to look through the contract in detail. Don’t be pushed. Ask for a copy of the contract to read through before hitting that “I Agree” button. It’ll be painful to have to work through all that legal language, but we promise it will be worth your time and effort. Whatever you do not understand from that contract, ask your sales agent, and if they say something that seems to contradict the contract, ask them to put what they say in writing, preferably with the heading “Amendment to Agreement.” Verbal assurances mean nothing once you’ve signed a contract, so you need to have it in writing beforehand.
One last thing about ETFs. On the agent website, right next to the box that touts TMS’s ETF reimbursement program, there’s another box that says, “No Cancellation Fees.” While, at first blush, this might suggest that TMS does not have an ETF, the term used is somewhat peculiar. We know that TMS knows what an ETF is — it uses the term right next to the “No Cancellation Fees” box — yet it does not use the term “No ETF Fees” in this adjacent box. We also know that an ETF is just one of quite a few different types of fees that a processor can charge a merchant upon cancellation of services. There sometimes is an additional account closure fee. TMS could be referring to this flat fee when it says, “No Cancellation Fees.” In other words, be careful about this issue. Ask and, if TMS claims these are the same, then make sure to get something in writing about the ETF and Cancellation Fees before you sign up.
Customer Service & Technical Support
TMS offers customer support by phone, email, and online documentation. It also provides 24/7 “Terminal Support,” which covers any problems with your terminal, but is otherwise vague on the working hours of its other customer support teams. As to online support, as mentioned in our last review, there is a somewhat disappointing Support FAQ page with documentation, the contents of which do not seem to have improved since our previous review. We also found a lot of dead links on the support page, so they do not add confidence to the online documentation part of customer support.
The TMS customer support phone number and other contact information are very easy to find on its website. That’s a big plus. From reviewing customer complaints, while customers are sometimes bounced around a bit, the issues that aren’t resolved seem to go to its deliberately impressive-sounding “Presidential Unit,” which likely is merely 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 two years since our last review. 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. They do a good job.
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 of these cases, the fires were started by unscrupulous sales agents who failed to disclose fees, especially early termination fees, as well as equipment return requirements. These issues aren’t customer support issues, but if you are that merchant who discovered hefty charges on your statement and who’s gotten the runaround, you really wouldn’t care.
At the end of the day, your time is your money, and we bet there are many other things you prefer to do with that time than talking to customer support, no matter how professional these folks might be. So while it’s nice to know that TMS does have a good customer support team, it would be better to simply never have to talk to them in the first place.
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. The number of complaints about the quality of service makes it seem like TMS leaves much to be desired.
This score is a compromise score. TMS has an unusually large number of complaints, which under normal circumstances would earn them a score of “poor.” However, these complaints are diligently addressed by its customer service team and refunds issued when appropriate, often to the merchant’s satisfaction. That usually earns the processor an “excellent” score. To balance the incongruency of the two, we end up with a score of “fair.”
Negative Reviews & Complaints
Our primary source for reviewing TMS complaints is the BBB website. When we last reviewed TMS, the company had 266 complaints in the last three years, with 63 complaints just in the 12 months prior. We are happy to report that the number has come down to 90 complaints in the last three years — though, really, 90 is still a lot. What is impressive is that every complaint since our last review date has been addressed, most of them satisfactorily.
Of the complaints in the last three years, 12 were for Advertising/Sales, 35 were for Billing/Collections, 42 with Problem with a Product or Service, and one in Delivery. Note that these categories are probably self-reported by the merchant, so some of the categorizations may be imprecise.
We went through all the complaints and the offers to resolve the issues by TMS’s customer support team. Often, the customer support team merely refunded the money in dispute, but not always. In general, they tend to refund the markup fees but not the wholesale fees, which makes sense because the markup is what they can control.
Common complaints include:
- Undisclosed & Unexpected Fees, Especially Early Termination Fees: The majority of the complaints had to do with some sort of fee dispute. Often, this is related to the merchant being surprised to have been charged 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 go to surprise fees/charges that the merchants were not told about by the independent sales agents. Some merchants discover the fee quickly and want the fee removed, but 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 perform an investigation on 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. It’s worth noting that mention of unethical agents seems to have quieted down in the last year or so, so maybe TMS is doing something internally to weed out these agents.
- 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. Fair enough, right? However, there are clearly some issues with the return process — whether it’s items that are 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. Check out our article on the best options for getting terminals and other equipment for more information.
It is worth noting that not all of these negative customer complaints are, well, reliable. We found a few merchants who suddenly complained of fees they’ve been paying for years or claim they were defrauded into signing a contract several years ago…for which they’ve been receiving payment processing services but now suddenly realize that they didn’t mean to sign a contract.
Beyond the BBB website, we did look through other review sites. While those sites contain older reviews, they don’t have a significant number of new reviews (or complaints), so we did not elaborate on these reviews in this current update. Worth mentioning are a few more recent complaints from Ripoff Report where unhappy former agents complained of their treatment, and unhappy merchants complained that they were signed up to service by unscrupulous agents. At Consumer Affairs, there was a mixture of positive and negative reviews. The negative reviews mentioned unethical agents who pushed merchants to sign up, fees that were more than promised, and difficulties in terminating the agreement.
Positive Reviews & Testimonials
We complained in our last review that there were no positive reviews or testimonials on the TMS website, and maybe someone at TMS read our review. Now, you do see a couple of positive testimonials on the TMS website praising the friendliness and helpfulness of the customer support team (but remaining silent on the actual processing service). There is a link to additional reviews, but that link takes you to a mostly blank webpage without any added information.
We did find some positive reviews on the Consumer Affairs website, but most seem to be from customers who only recently signed up. They speak of lower processing fees. A lot of these positive reviews are around the early 2018 period but have since petered out, so it makes one wonder if, around that time, TMS had encouraged customers to leave reviews, but that effort has since ended.
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). Certainly, this means that not every TMS customer is unhappy, and not every sales agent is desperate to sign up merchants to line their own pockets.
Overall, it’s hard to recommend Total Merchant Services if you’re in the market for a credit card processor. On the positive side, TMS does offer a variety of solid products and services for small or even large businesses. The addition of PayAnywhere hardware and software since our last review really should be seen as a positive thing. Further, customer service seems to have significantly improved. They are a lot more active in addressing customer complaints, especially on the BBB website.
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. Now, 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 deal. Early termination fees that may or may not be included in your contract, “free” terminals that might actually be zero-dollar leases that cause return problems when you end your contract, and surprise fees not disclosed by the sales agent can all be time-consuming and difficult to deal with. Given that there are so many other credit card processors that offer transparent pricing as well as (potentially) free equipment with far less hassle attached, we think you’re better off just staying away from TMS in the first place.
At the moment, Total Merchant Services scores a 3 out of 5 stars. If you do opt to go with them, 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.
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!
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