Leaders is a good option for businesses processing between $5,000 and $100,000 per month. With a full suite of services, they can handle almost every type of business, transparent terms, and traditional tiered pricing at attractive rates, these guys are a decent option for a wide range of companies. However, their fee schedule initially seems complicated (it's actually not), so it's important that you understand it.
Leaders -- "The Merchant Services Company" -- has been in business since 2000. A registered ISO, this company offers traditional tiered pricing, with discount rates (aka Tier prices) that are better than average.
Leaders uses transparent billing, meaning, they break out each and every charge instead of lumping them together. This is good in the sense that you can see everything you're paying for, but bad in the sense that it can be overwhelming and/or confusing for small business owners. With respect to the aggregate amount of those monthly and annual fees, with a few exceptions (discussed below), they are fairly run of the mill.
On the customer service side, the company offers 24/7 free calls (that doesn't seem like it should be a perk, but in this industry it is), and in general customers have expressed satisfaction with the customer service. There are, however, a number of complaints related to billing. The complaints are related to the multitude of small fees that show up on the customer's bill. Frankly, that has more to do with the way the company bills, than the actual overall price. Moreover, it does appear that in recent months those have tapered off because of some changes the company has made in terms of pushing for transparency in pricing.
In terms of services they offer, this is a dedicated full service merchant account provider. Meaning, they offer just about everything for everyone, but aren't focused on any specific type of business. So for most mainstream businesses, this credit card processor offers most everything you'll need in terms of software integration, various transaction forms, etc.
Finally, based in California, Leaders provides a 98% approval rate for their applicants, which can mean that this company might be perfect for those businesses with credit issues.
Below is a detailed review of Leaders Merchant Services offering. The review is broken down into the following categories.
Depending upon the type of business you own, some of the following features may or may not be important to you. To learn more about any given feature, just click on it.
As a 'do everything' type ISO, Leaders should, and does, provide plenty of features and services. They offer credit card processing services listed below, and they also offer merchant cash advances, business loans, and direct deposit to pay employees. Here's what we found in terms of Leaders' capabilities:
|Microsoft Dynamics GP||No|
|Windows / Blackberry||No|
|iPhone / iPad||Yes|
|Alternative Transaction Types:|
|Snail Mail Orders||Yes|
|American Express (AMEX)||Yes|
|Add Tips to Bills||Yes|
|eCommerce / Shopping Cart||Yes|
|EMV Chip Cards||Yes|
|Loyalty / Gift Cards||Yes|
|eChecks / Electronic Checks||Yes|
|Welfare Benefits (EBT/SNAP/TANF)||Yes|
|Security / Fraud Prevention:|
|AVS Fraud Protection||Yes|
|PCI DSS Secure Transactions||Yes|
|HIPAA Compliance (Healthcare)||Yes|
|Trust Account Debiting (Legal)||No|
|Fleet Cards (Petroleum)||Yes|
|Online Menu Orders (Restaurants)||Yes|
One thing to note, Leaders makes these options available, but for many of them, doesn't provide them directly themselves. For example, their gateway is Authorize.Net, and their terminals and other products are provided by companies such as First Data. Third party options are not too unique in this industry, and in fact we generally prefer them because they're usually of better quality than proprietary versions. That said, it does mean that you may have some extra hassle in getting help if you have problems with one of these services.
Almost Every merchant account services company uses either Interchange Plus or Tiered Pricing (read more about this topic here). Where companies allow us to disclose pricing information, we show the deals that our secret shoppers were able to achieve. When companies offer both Interchange Plus and Tiered Pricing, we try to get a quote on both options.
Leaders is transparent about a lot of options, especially if you take time to read their fine print. As is typical in this industry, however, pricing information, isn't easily discovered. We culled the following prices from their Sample Merchant Processing Statement, which displays tiered rates:
There are no varying rate differences between swiped or keyed-in cards. Those discount rates (aka price per tier) are quite a bit cheaper and flatter than we've seen elsewhere. The reason that flatness (meaning the difference between the qualified rate and non-qualified rate isn't very large) is important, is it means you're less likely to get surprised by significant "downgraded transactions."
Other fees include:
Additionally, you can see on the sample statement that Leaders does charge a $10.00 statement/customer service fee, though apparently this can vary. Also note the "Less Discount Paid" figure -- this is the figure that could change if the merchant doesn't meet the volume in sales submitted on an application. That penalty is noted below in the fine print.
All of this pricing information is gleaned from the sample merchant statement, rather than listed directly on their site, so we can't be sure its 100% accurate.
Leaders, fortunately, provides a great deal of information in two specific documents: their Merchant Services Program Guide and a Merchant Sample Statement. Both documents can provide plenty of pricing and fee information.
|Fine Print Fees:|
|Termination Fee||$350 Maximum|
|Setup / Application Fee||Perhaps|
|PCI Compliance Fee||$120/year|
|PCI Inaction Fee||$40/month|
|Online Reporting Fee||None|
|Monthly Minimum Volume Fee||Yes, Variable|
|Accept International Pymt Fee||Possible|
|Voice Authorization Fee||Possible|
|Monthly Min. Process Fee||None|
|Daily Batch Fee||None|
|ACH / Direct Deposit Fee||Possible|
|ACH Charge Fee||Possible|
|ACH Return Fee||Possible|
|FANF Fee||Yes, Variable|
|Chargeback Fees||$35 each|
|Free Setup Consultation|
|24/7 Free Customer Support|
One of the fine print options we discovered in the Merchant Services Program Guide shows that Leaders will create a Reserve Account if they suspect you are conducting fraudulent transactions or if you display suspicious or unusual processing activities. This Reserve Account is $49.95 per month and charged to your merchant account. That's a nasty "gotcha" fee, but for those companies that get hit with a slew of bad charges, paying that fee is probably a lot better than getting dumped as a merchant immediately, which is what most credit card processors do.
Leaders states clearly in that Merchant Services Program Guide that Authorize.Net is the gateway for their merchant services, and the merchant needs to set up a separate contract with that service (although the sales person we talked with said that there was no separate contract, but there was an $8.00 per month charge for this service).
Also, according to the fine print, if the merchant's volume is not what was indicated on the application, Leaders will alter the transaction fees. This is legalese for a minimum monthly volume fee, so make sure that your business exceeds that minimum before signing up. The fees above do not include the ones we listed in the pricing section.
If you search for the dollar sign ($) in the Merchant Services Program Guide, you can find a monthly fee of $4.95 for an optional Equipment Service Program for your terminal. Will the sales person mention this program, or will he/she tack it on without your knowledge? When you play this $ game with this document, you can learn about all the questions you might ask your sales representative before you sign on the dotted line for Leaders' services.
Our Take: We give Leaders a big thumbs up for this much transparency in their pricing documentation. We may not love all of these monthly fees, but at least with Leaders, merchants have a chance to understand the fees they're going to be charged instead of getting duped like some of their competitors try to do.
While your transactions usually take place electronically, the actual device that you use to swipe a customer's card is referred to as "the equipment." This equipment includes hardware and, often, software or apps for that hardware to function properly.
Leaders is up front with most of their hardware options, offering clear photos of each piece of equipment. Unless you're savvy to various companies in this business, however, you may not realize that each piece of equipment shown can be purchased directly from the companies such as First Data and VeriFone, generally for cheaper rates. The downside is that sometimes there are compatibility and programming issues, so you'll need to decide whether or not the trade off is worth it for you. In any case, if you do buy equipment from Leaders, be aware that you, as a merchant, will sign lease contracts separate from the one you sign with Leaders for merchant services if you don't purchase the credit card terminal outright.
One issue we have is that Leaders could, and perhaps should, tell merchants that they can go straight to VeriFone, First Data, or other companies to purchase equipment at a possible discount. Instead, they'll try to sell you on a lease contract, which are a profit center for Leaders. We've even read complaints about Leaders selling contracts with a Square Reader, which is totally out of bounds. We don't know if this complaint is true or not, but it's disturbing if so.
Leaders serves U.S. businesses that want to sell in the U.S. and abroad. They use Authorize.Net as their gateway, which translates to Cybersource, Authorize.Net's parent company, for international sales. The company's primary focus is serving clients in the U.S.
I generally don't like long-term contracts or termination fees in merchant services agreements, because the ability to cancel keeps the credit card processor on its best behavior, including the willingness to make you happy if there's a dispute. Plus, this ability to cancel gives you the ability to move on if you find a better deal.
The standard three-year lease is described in the Merchant Services Program Guide. Early termination in the first year is $350.00 and $250.00 in subsequent years (Article 24). This is a common contract for merchant services, and some merchants can absorb these costs if you're dissatisfied with Leaders' services and decide you want to leave. Due to this termination fee, this isn't a great fit for small businesses (sub $5,000 per month). Rather, small businesses can find better options to start with month-to-month services that don't charge early termination fees.
The merchant account services industry is multi-layered. Understanding how those layers fit together can be confusing (Read More in this Article). Good things to know, however, is whether or not your company is a direct processor (good if yes) or, if not, then to know who they process with and whether or not that processor is reliable. The second thing to know is whether or not the service or sales staffs are in-house or outsourced. In-house staffs are preferable for you, as these staff members may have more access to sources that can resolve your issues.
Processor: Leaders is a registered ISO of Wells Fargo Bank, N.A., Walnut Creek, California. Authorize.Net serves as the gateway for this service, and other companies -- such as First Data -- supply equipment.
Account Sales: Leaders seems to be low-key with sales, relying instead on evangelists who market their products and services through their agent program.
Account Service: Leaders provides a "Chat Live!" button in the lower corner of their screen. We tried this option when we were cut off from the sales call (see below), and we were amused to discover that the same woman who answered the phone initially also was the same person who answered the phone when I called. We were curious as to how this could be possible, since it sounded as though Desirre was responding from a call center initially. She did answer our question about office hours, which are 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. PST. They also offer 24/7 Customer Service that can be reached via phone.
As part of our review process, we try to test merchant account service companies' claims by placing test calls and working through the customer service process.
2/17/2015; TIME: 12:32 pm EST
Call to Customer Support
A woman named Desirre answered the phone with a cheerful voice and probably could have answered most of our basic questions. Since we had a question about their gateway option, she referred us to Josh, a sales representative. Josh was ready to give a sales spiel until I interrupted him by stating that I was just shopping and had a question about Authorize.net. He diverted me by asking me about my business. He never asked for my name and he didn't seem very interested in my "less than $10,000 per month in sales" parameters. He never heard of Etsy, and he wasn't aware that they offered a payment processing system.
Josh seemed surprised that I knew to ask about their gateway service, because he seemed unprepared to answer my question. We lost our connection immediately after he answered that question about Authorize.Net (he says no separate contract, and an $8 per month charge for usage). Desirre had taken my phone number, and it appeared that Josh tried to return my call several times over several days after we were cut off. I actually respect the effort, and think it's a testament to their customer service, especially considering I probably wasn't a particularly attractive potential client.
We scoured the web to find past and current customer complaints about Leader's services. Then, we investigated those complaints that seemed legit, and provide our verdict on how well the processor handled the issues.
This complaint covered a ton of hidden fee issues, including the early contract termination fee.
There are so many complaints in this arena that we did some more digging. It appears that Leaders recently upgraded their website and -- in the process -- may have added the documents that we used for this article (program guide and sample statement). If those documents weren't online, then we can see how Leaders might have snookered some folks. We'll see if those complaints taper off over the upcoming months now that those documents are online.
This is a common complaint among merchants, no matter the credit card processor.
We mentioned previously that Leaders can withhold funds if the merchant account appears to be engaged in fraudulent or suspicious activities. This Reserve Account, which supposedly covers chargebacks and other issues, can be pricey. In fact, it can eat up your sales. Be aware that Leaders can be trigger-happy with this issue, and that they could shut down a small or mid-sized business with this action.
We've seen this complaint so many times that we're wondering if it's becoming an industry standard.
Obviously Leaders is not leading the way on this matter. We don't know why so many large processing companies refuse to let go and prefer, instead, to tap into clients' bank accounts for continuing monthly fees and other charges on dead accounts.
|PCI Compliance Fee||$10.00|
|Online Reporting Fee||$0.00|
|Contract Length||3 Year Contract|
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About the Reviews: These reviews, and for that matter any reviews, are inherently subjective, and should be regarded as our opinion, not as a statement of fact. Selecting a merchant services provider is an important decision, and we urge you to use no single source of information as the basis of that decision.
About the Pricing: This pricing is an estimate based on limited available information. In some cases, the Processors' pricing information was provided directly by the company, in others, we obtained it from public information, through calls to the company, or through past or current clients of the company. Where, despite these efforts, we were unable to obtain any information about certain fees, we used estimates based on similar providers in the industry. While we're working, in some cases, with the company directly to get more accurate pricing, even in those circumstances, we can't guarantee the pricing's accuracy. Complicating all of this, is that for some companies individual salespeople are given authority to modify terms on a deal by deal basis. In any case, if you know of an error, please let us know and we'll fix it.
About the Calculations: With respect to your estimated savings, this is based on a lot of factors and some hard math. The reason we do it, along with the "Actual Gross Rate" calculation is that every Processor prices their product differently (e.g. interchange v. 3 tier v. 4 tier v. flat v. membership, etc.) and some make it intentionally complicated or opaque. Trying to convert their pricing structure to a consistent "Overall Cost of Processing" is the only way you, the merchant, can do an apples to apples pricing comparison and know whether an offer is actually a good deal. Our system isn't perfect but we're trying.
Conclusion: In sum, these rankings, ratings, and scores are inherently subjective, and should be regarded as our opinion and not as a legal statement of fact. Moreover, use these prices and estimates at your own risk, and make sure to verify the pricing you see here in any formal contract you receive. Finally, if you do find something wrong in our pricing, terms, etc., tell us and we'll try to fix it.