How to Evaluate Credit Card Processing Companies

Which credit card processing company should you get your merchant account from? Credit card processing fees, transaction fees and statement fees vary a lot. Here’s how to  compare merchant account providers and make a choice that will keep from paying more than necessary for accepting credit cards. 

There are many credit card processing companies that offer merchant accounts that let small businesses accept credit cards in retail stores, on the Internet and even with a cell phone. But finding the right one for your company isn’t easy.

For starters, many banks won’t offer merchant accounts directly to small businesses. Instead, small businesses need to go through third party providers who secure the merchant account for you. Each of these third parties may have different fee structures and somewhat different rules.  

To complicate matters, if you are processing credit card orders online, the transaction has to pass through an online gateway system. Whatever shopping cart software you choose has to interface with these gateways. Not all shopping carts work out of the box with all gateways. Thus you need to be sure the shopping cart you plan on using will work with the merchant card provider you choose. 

Rates and fees
Many factors can influence the discount rate and other fees you pay for the privilege of accepting charge cards. Among those factors: the length of time you have been in business, the percentage of your sales that are made over the phone or the Internet, the type of business you are in, the number of years you’ve been in business, your personal credit rating, the average dollar amount of each sales transaction, the total dollar amount of sales per month. Service fees tacked on by the third party providers or by their sales people, can also add to your costs.

Typically, however, discounts rates ranged from 2.25 to 3 percent for home and small businesses that accept mail order and phone orders. American Express and Discover Card usually charge a higher discount rate than Visa and MasterCard.

Some companies advertise discount fees less than 2 percent. Usually these lower fees are for swiped transactions (sales made by running the customer’s credit card through a machine). And, some credit card processors charge higher than average fees. Although poor personal credit or the type of business you run might possibly cause you to have to pay a high fee, do not agree to such a high a discount rate until you have personally determined that no other company will process your charges at a lower rate.

The discount rate isn’t the only credit card processing fee to look at.  Compare not only the application fees and the discount rate, but also the initial cost of equipment, per-transaction fees (a fee you pay on top of the discount for each transaction you process), monthly minimums, voice verification charges, address verification (if extra) fees, monthly statement fees, and any other costs you will incur. A difference of 10 cents on the transaction fee is equivalent to a one-half a percent on the discount rate if your average sale is $20.

Some companies require you to maintain an account in their bank in order to process cards. Read all such agreements closely to determine under what circumstances the bank can put a hold on your account, and how much of the account it can hold back. Find out how often you can withdraw money from such accounts, and check with your own local bank to find out how long it will take to clear checks drawn on the merchant bank.

Pay close attention to the cost of equipment or software for processing the charges, too. Identical software and comparable hardware varies in price by as much as $600 or more depending on who you use purchase it from. If you will need to process credit cards when you are on the road (say, when you fix a customer’s washing machine, or sell your crafts at a crafts fair), find out if the credit card processing company has a mobile option that works with your smart phone.

If at all possible do not lease equipment or software. Buy it at the start. By leasing it you often set yourself up for three or four years of noncancellable lease payments and wind up paying thousands of dollars more than necessary.

Be sure to read ALL applications forms and contracts mailed to you carefully. Read all of the small print. Several companies will charge you if you want to stop processing charges through them in less than two to three years. That cancellation fee is separate from any noncancellable lease clauses for equipment. If you are planning to sell via mail order, look for information on the application form and contract about the percent of transactions you can process as phone orders (non-swiped). What the salesman says on the phone may NOT be what the application actually says. If there’s a dispute, what will stand up is what is on the printed contract you get, not what you say the salesman told you.

Check to see under what conditions the company can terminate your account, and, whether there are monthly minimums or maximums.

The Application Process: What to Expect
Some companies will want the right to send a representative to your place of business (including your home if that’s where you do business) to take a photo of your office. This is to verify that you are at the location you say you are. Some will accept a photo of your office instead of the onsite visit.

Depending on which company you are dealing with, you may have to provide any or all of the following: copy of your business license or certificate of doing business (dba); profit and loss statements; copies of previous years’ tax returns; photo of your office.

All will require two-way access to your bank account if you are accepted. This allows them to deposit funds into your account and also allows them to withdraw them if there are charge backs.

Related article: Tips for reducing credit card processing fees

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