Introduction to Merchant Accounts
You likely already know that you can’t depend on cash purchases alone to drive your sales. After all, three in 10 Americans¹ make it through a typical week without spending cash! Credit and debit sales can account for a significant chunk of your revenue, but they do require some extra set-up on your end. If you’re starting out as a business owner or expanding into e-commerce, we’ve got the payment processing details you need to know.
What Is a Merchant Account?
A merchant account is a specific type of bank account that can receive the funds from credit and debit card transactions. A credit or debit card swipe kicks off a chain sequence of communication as card issuers and bank accounts talk to each other to approve the transaction. Next, payment processing tech directs the funds from the transaction to land in the merchant account. Depending on how you’ve structured your settings, the funds may transfer from the merchant account to your business bank account daily or weekly.
At first glance, a merchant account may seem like an unnecessary intermediate step. Why not simply deposit credit and debit funds directly into your bank account? Credit transactions are inherently riskier than cash, because the customer is effectively taking a loan from the credit issuer to pay you. Stashing funds in a merchant account as a sort of staging area first makes returning funds simpler if needed. It’s also more streamlined for you to get one batch deposit in your business account than separate deposits for every sale you make.
How Do I Get a Merchant Account?
The first step to getting a merchant account is to prove that you’re running a business. You’ll need a business bank account to apply. The merchant account application will ask for your business history and any additional documents needed.
Next, your application goes through an underwriting process to review your credit history, business history, age and type of your business and other criteria to determine your level of risk. If the provider finds points that they’re concerned about, that can be reason to analyze parts of your application more closely and possibly put some restrictions on the account. You can often revisit and renegotiate terms later if risk factors improve.
In many cases, business owners may get their first merchant account from the same bank where they already hold other accounts (like your business accounts). Yes, we said “first.” You may need multiple merchant accounts to keep your payment options competitive.
How Many Merchant Accounts Do I Need?
One merchant account doesn’t always fit with all types of payment you want to support. Some merchant accounts may not be able to process every major credit card. E-commerce sellers need a merchant account with the specific capability of processing online sales. Accepting options like ACH payments or Apple Pay might require an additional account, too.
Sound overwhelming yet? Fortunately, you don’t need to go through the hassle of applying for merchant accounts one by one. Working with a Merchant Account Provider consolidates a lot of the work. Merchant Account Providers handle the tech back end so you can accept card transactions in person and online, and include the variety of payment options that work best for your customers.
Who Provides Merchant Account Services?
You’ve got a range of options when it comes to finding a Merchant Account Provider. Your volume of transactions and the level of service you need make a difference in determining which provider is best for you.
Many business owners are looking for a provider that can support the entire credit and debit payment process, including payment terminal, Payment Gateway and Merchant Account Services. It’s helpful to work with a Merchant Account Provider that’s flexible enough to support you as your business grows. If you don’t have an online store yet, but plan to create one in the next three years, for example, look into providers who support traditional retail and e-commerce transactions so you don’t need to switch down the road.
In some cases, a company offering Merchant Account Services isn’t truly providing you with your own merchant account. Companies like PayPal and Square use an aggregate merchant account, meaning they pool all the sellers using their platform into one giant merchant account. There’s nothing underhanded about this business practice, but it does come with a higher risk for the sellers than having individual merchant accounts. A Merchant Account Provider that lets you operate with your own merchant accounts can offer more stability. You’ll also often get additional services that ramp up the value to your business.
That said, you should definitely do your research. Make sure you’re only being charged legitimate fees, not unethical or frivolous charges. Ask providers how they keep data secure and what kind of customer support you’ll get. Check that they support all the payment options you want to accept. This company will help you handle some of the most sensitive information for your business, so you need to work with someone you can trust.
As your business grows, you can easily find yourself swimming in tech jargon. Accepting credit, debit and other non-cash payments doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You now know that a merchant account is an essential part of the chain to accept funds from credit and debit transactions. Your plans for your business’ online and offline presence will guide the next decisions about exactly which kinds of accounts and services will offer you the most benefit.
The 3 Types of Merchant Accounts
Retail Merchant Accounts
Retail merchant services work with point of sale (POS) or “card present” transactions. This includes traditional, countertop terminal sales in your brick-and-mortar store, or transactions you make over a mobile reader at a conference booth or market.
After you have applied for this type of merchant account, you will need to consider your method of obtaining the necessary hardware. Account providers either lease, rent or sell businesses a terminal. One of the first things to check with providers is whether you’re purchasing or leasing the POS equipment and how much it costs.
One of the benefits of a retail merchant account is that it’s inherently more secure than other types of merchant accounts. The customer is there to swipe or dip the card in a physical terminal. You can check signatures or even a photo ID if you choose, so there’s a lower risk of credit card fraud than with Internet sales or other transactions where you never see the credit card (or the customer).
Having to acquire terminal equipment is one downside of a retail merchant account, especially because some providers charge inflated rates to lease their terminals. You can avoid this downside by focusing your search on companies that provide free terminals for qualified businesses or rent terminals at a reasonable rate.
The other con to a retail merchant account is that although you get an extra measure of security with in-person transactions, you’re also cutting way back on your reach. By limiting credit and debit transactions to those customers who are able and willing to swing by your store, you can cut yourself off of a large potential target market.
MOTO Merchant Accounts
Sometimes, it’s more convenient both for business owners and customers to handle transactions remotely. Mail order and telephone order (MOTO) merchant accounts are set up to allow card-not-present transactions. With this method of payment, the customer sends in card information or gives it over the phone. The merchant processes the sale by entering the card details into a Virtual Terminal.
A Virtual Terminal can run in any secure browser, so this is an option even for businesses that don’t have their own website up and running. Accepting MOTO payments can benefit businesses that offer delivery services or subscriptions, as well as nonprofits and businesses with a traveling sales team. MOTO sales are more convenient for customers, who may feel more comfortable giving card information to a real person on the other end of the line than submitting an online form.
Some downsides to MOTO merchant accounts is that it is harder to verify customer identity. You may find yourself more liable to cover the cost of fraud damages and facing higher processing rates for credit and debit transactions. Finally, if you’re accepting telephone orders, you’re still limited to accepting orders when you have an employee available to take calls.
E-Commerce Merchant Accounts
E-commerce is a more than $500 billion market2, and it accounts for a growing share of retail sales in the United States. An e-commerce or Internet merchant account makes it possible for your business reach to extend anywhere with an Internet connection.
In order to accept Internet payments, the first thing you need is a functioning website. One in three small businesses still don’t have a website3, so this can present a hurdle for business owners. (On the fence about creating a website? Consider that even if you’re skeptical about how e-commerce applies to your industry, shoppers who can conduct multichannel research spend more4 than single-channel shoppers.)
Next, your website will need an online shopping cart and a Payment Gateway. The Payment Gateway, like a Virtual Terminal with MOTO merchant accounts, acts as an electronic version of the card reader you’d see in a store. The difference is that instead of the merchant manually entering the card details a customer provides, customers fill in details themselves.
Internet sales carry greater risk than other credit and debit transactions. As a business owner, it’s your responsibility to maintain a secure website, account for your PCI compliance, protect cardholder data and take whatever measures you can to lower fraud risk for your business.
Setting your business up for secure, Internet-based transactions can seem like a lot of work to get started, but the upside is that an e-commerce merchant account can deliver serious ROI. Because customers enter all the necessary details for a card transaction themselves, you’re “open for business” 24/7. In terms of geographical reach and time, you’re more available to customers than ever before.
Working with an excellent Merchant Account Provider can also reduce the burden of some e-commerce downsides. Your provider can take care of PCI compliance for you and offer solutions to keep your credit card fraud risk as low as possible, while making the shopping experience fast and easy for customers. Meanwhile, the flexibility you offer your customers, the revenue from e-commerce sales and the extra authority you gain in your reputation by having a robust Web presence can add up to a noticeable boost in your company’s success.
In all likelihood, you may find over the course of growing your business that all three of these types of merchant accounts fit your needs. Merchant accounts are often worth the investment for business owners so they can connect with customers through as many avenues as possible.
What Are Merchant Account Fees
Accepting credit and debit card payments can lead to revenue growth. That’s not to say that there are no costs associated with merchant accounts. Here’s what to expect from different pricing models and fees.
Merchant Account Pricing Models
Two pricing models you’ll encounter often as you shop for a true Merchant Account Provider are Tiered and Interchange-plus. While Flat pricing is very much present in the payments industry, it is only offered by Payment Facilitators and comes with its own limitations.
Tiered Pricing Model
A Tiered plan groups credit and debit processing fees into three (or sometimes six) categories, each of which has its own set fee. The standard tiers are:
- Qualified: This tier is for credit and debit transactions that meet the provider's "standard" requirements. These transactions come with the lowest rate.
- Mid-Qualified: Some transactions (which might include keyed-in transactions or certain types of credit cards, like some rewards cards) cost the provider more, so they fall into a tier with a higher markup.
- Non-Qualified: This tier might catch credit or debit transactions that come with the highest risk. If you keyed-in card details and couldn’t verify the address, for example, these transactions could end up with a Non-Qualified rate. As you may have guessed, this tier can carry a substantially higher percentage rate, based on higher Interchange costs and provider markup.
If the Merchant Account Provider draws a distinction between cards with a PIN and those without, each of the above tiers splits accordingly, adding up to six tiers in total.
Interchange-Plus Pricing Model
Interchange-plus has the distinct advantages of being much more transparent for businesses and much cheaper overall. Interchange-plus models add two costs to calculate the credit and debit card processing fee per transaction:
- Interchange Fee: This is the wholesale cost per transaction. Each card brand sets their own costs, which can vary based on the specific card and the type of transaction (e.g., swipe, chip, remote transaction).
- Discount Rate: The markup the Merchant Account Provider adds to the Interchange cost. Since the Merchant Account Provider doesn’t see a cent of the Interchange cost (which goes directly to the card brand), this is where the provider takes their compensation for providing a card processing service.
A billing statement for Interchange-plus is going to look more complex than a Tiered plan, because you’re getting much more detail on exactly why you’re being charged a particular amount per transaction. If you can get past an initial learning curve, you’ll likely find that Interchange-plus pricing gives you better insight and better prices.
Merchant Account Fees
Your statement from a Merchant Account Provider doesn’t just list the processing fees for your actual credit and debit sales. Terminology for fees isn't always straightforward, so reviewing a statement can be confusing, especially when you're first starting out with your merchant account. Here’s what fees you can expect to see and what red flags to avoid.
Universal Merchant Account Fees
No matter which provider or pricing model you’re working with, expect these fees on your statement:
- Authorization Fee: Covers the cost of checking credit balance with the card issuer and approving or denying the transaction (so you’re charged even if the transaction is denied).
- Assessment Fees: These come from the card issuers, so the cost to the merchant should be the same across the board, regardless of the Merchant Account Provider. Depending on the card brand, a rate of 0.11 percent to 0.15 percent is typical. These rates are subject to change when card brands release updates twice a year, so check the card brand's terms if you're unsure.
- Transaction Fees: General fees that apply every time you run a transaction.
Common Recurring or Incidental Fees
Fees vary depending on your provider, such as contract terms and the volume of transactions you process. Some are open to negotiation when you’re working out an agreement with the Merchant Account Provider:
- Statement Fee: Covers the paper, ink and stamps for sending your statement. The easiest way to skip this is to opt for online statements.
- Monthly or Annual Fee: A catch-all fee for the provider’s overall services. Not all providers charge this.
- Processing Commitment Fee: Sometimes you can get out of a monthly or annual fee by agreeing to process a certain volume every month. Miss your target, and you’ll get this fee instead.
- Terminal Fee or Payment Gateway Fee: Covers the cost of the physical terminal, the payment processing software or both, depending on your Merchant Account Provider and the plan you have.
- Chargeback Fee: A chargeback not only costs you the revenue of the sale, but you’ll typically face a fee from the Merchant Account Provider, too. Keeping up the best security and fraud prevention practices can help you minimize chargebacks.
Unethical Merchant Account Fees
Unfortunately, some providers pad your statement with unnecessary fees. While they’re within their legal rights to charge these fees, be wary of providers charging the following:
- PCI Compliance Fee: This is sometimes presented as a “for your own good” fee for businesses that aren’t meeting PCI compliance standards. The thing is, a fee doesn’t fix the problem. It just makes the provider richer.
- IRS Reporting Fee: Merchant Account Providers are legally required to submit their customers’ revenue information to the IRS. Why are you being charged for a task that another company is legally obligated to do?
- Self-Assessment Questionnaire Fee: You should have the ability to opt in or out of your own business self-assessment without paying a penalty.
- AVS Fee: Running an AVS check helps with credit card security, and a fee of around $0.01 per transaction is okay. Some providers inflate this fee ten times higher than it should be and pocket the difference.
Before you sign on with a Merchant Services Provider, make sure you get a full list of fees. A provider’s transparency and commitment to avoiding meaningless fees enables you to collect the most revenue from your credit and debit card sales.
Merchant Account Requirements
If you’ve ever felt awkward about trying out unfamiliar equipment at the gym, you may recognize those feelings creeping up again as you prepare to open a merchant account. What do you need to get started? How does this part work? How long does it take to see results?
It’s easy to put off applying for a merchant account when you’re not sure how to jump in, even if you know it’s the right move for your business. Think of us as your coach, cheering you on and running you through the play-by-play on what to expect from the application process.
Required Paperwork for Merchant Account Application
Any relationship that involves a financial component comes with a degree of risk. When a Merchant Service Provider gets ready to work with you, they need to know who you are and how your company operates in order to mitigate their own risk.
Some of the essential documents you needed when you started your business also legitimize your business in the eyes of Merchant Account Providers:
- Business bank account: Most businesses are legally required to maintain a separate business account. Even if you’re operating under the kind of sole proprietorship that doesn’t require one, a business account is a prerequisite for a merchant account (in addition to generally being a smart business practice).
- Business license: Again, most businesses legally need to have this documentation in place to operate, so you’re just demonstrating that you’re legitimate.
- Marketing materials: Marketing materials are another legitimacy check, especially for newer businesses that don’t have as many financial documents to prove they’re up and running.
When you apply for a merchant account, these are the additional documents you'll need to submit:
- Application: Many Merchant Account Providers offer online applications, which saves the hassle of certified snail mail or fax. Each provider has their own application requirements, but you can generally expect to provide details about your contact info, business start date, credit (the Merchant Account Provider runs a credit check on the business credit and possibly the business owner's personal credit, as well as any further financial analysis needed on the business), and your processing volume.
- Business bank account verification: Generally, a void check meets this requirement.
- Bank statements: These financial records, in addition to credit checks, help a Merchant Account Provider assess how trustworthy you are in terms of paying your debts.
Some of this information depends on the amount of revenue you expect to take in through debit and credit card transactions. For small businesses processing a few thousand dollars a month, merchant account requirements may be minimal. For businesses handling higher transaction volumes, Merchant Account Providers may want to see financials from the last year.
How Underwriting Merchant Accounts Works
The next step after you’ve submitted your application and any other documents is that the Merchant Account Provider sends your materials along to their underwriters.
An underwriter evaluates the risk for your business, but this isn’t a “Shark Tank”-style judgment. They’re not concerned about whether you’re the best on the market. They’re looking out for fraudulent businesses or patterns that indicate you’d be a financial liability as a client. Anytime your business gets hit with a chargeback, the money comes out of the provider’s funds first, so they want to make sure you can cover those potential losses. Underwriters may look out for poor credit, bankruptcy, or high-risk business practices like charging customers months in advance (for event tickets, for example, which come with a risk of cancellation) as demerits on a merchant application.
If your application doesn’t have any major red flags, you might be surprised by how fast the underwriting process can be. The entire underwriting process may be completed as quickly as three business days.
Merchant Account Requirements After Approval
You’ve signed the agreement, installed any hardware or software you need and opened your business for credit, debit and ACH payments. From here, follow these practices to keep your merchant account running smoothly:
- Pay your fees: Sounds obvious, but this is a reminder that interpreting merchant account fees can take a little time to master. You’ll pay either a set fee based on the payment tier, or an Interchange fee plus a percentage markup. It's possible for credit and ACH payments to go through different merchant accounts, which could make fees and processing time different.
- Stay within your credit card processing limits: A merchant account is like a line of credit. If your credit card company notices a suspicious charge, they can freeze your account or block the transaction until they can confirm there’s no fraudulent activity. Your Merchant Account Provider can freeze your account for going over the limits, too—except now that means revenue you count on to pay business expenses is out of reach! During your application process, be clear about the processing volumes you need, especially if you have seasonal spikes. (Enjoying an unexpected sales boost? Some providers are flexible. Just call in and request a temporary limit increase.)
- Keep up PCI compliance: PCI Data Security Standard (DSS) requirements protect consumer privacy and information security. Whether you’re aware of it or not, meeting PCI DSS requirements is your responsibility as a business owner. Fortunately, some Merchant Service Providers will do the legwork for you to keep your software in compliance.
In many cases, applying for a merchant account is a quick, easy process. Collecting your documents in advance and doing your homework on the Merchant Account Providers that will give you the best service makes opening an account even easier.
How to Set up a Merchant Account
With so many customers preferring to pay for purchases using a credit card, not having a merchant account is essentially like turning away business. But once you have considered the options available to you and found a Merchant Account Provider that fits your needs, there are still some additional steps you must perform before you can start running your customers’ card transactions. The specific instructions may vary depending on your provider, but here’s how to get started if you are working with an established Merchant Account Provider.
1. Obtain a Merchant Account
Your Merchant Account Provider acts similarly to a bank, extending credit to your business to cover purchases. Much like a line of credit, this involves some element of risk to your provider, because if a purchase is flagged as fraudulent and subject to a chargeback, your Merchant Account Provider will be on the hook for those funds if you cannot afford to return them. As a result, signing on with a new Merchant Account provider usually requires some up-front screening to ensure your business’s financial health and assess your risk level.
Similar to a bank, a Merchant Account Provider will assess your application by requesting financial and business details such as your business address and branches, the types of payment cards you intend to accept, financial history and processing volume estimates. If you already work with another Merchant Account Provider, they will likely request samples of recent monthly statements as added verification of your typical transaction activities. Once your application is approved, you will need to provide a voided check to link your merchant account to your bank account so that your funds may be directly deposited.
2. Log Into Your New Merchant Account
A merchant account is managed online via a secure, cloud-based interface. Even if you have multiple merchant accounts, in order to process transactions from different branches or in-store and online, you can manage all your accounts via one single login. To access a cloud-based (i.e. online) merchant account, your provider will supply you with login information including a secure URL from which you can access your account and set up your username and password. Once you have this information, you will be able to log into your account in order to to configure your settings and get started.
3. Configure Access Controls
As the administrator of your merchant account, you will have full access to all of the merchant accounts attached to your login, as well as to functions such as the ability to issue refunds, manually settle batches and process recurring transactions. You will also have full visibility into all transactions and reports. As these are activities and responsibilities that you may wish to delegate, you will need to configure access for anyone else who will perform these functions.
Due to the sensitive nature of financial information, sharing login credentials for your merchant account is not advised. However, the best Merchant Account Providers should allow you to set up individual logins for supervisors, office managers and anyone else who may require access. As well, granular user controls allow you to grant individual users access to specific accounts by department or location, while restricting others. You can also limit individual users’ permissions for performing specific activities, such as viewing transaction history, viewing other users’ transactions and processing recurring transactions.
4. Familiarize Yourself with Your Merchant Account Features and Interface
While a merchant account is crucial in order to allow you to simply process payments, its features can do more than merely enable transactions. For example, PayJunction’s Virtual Terminal improves the ease of many tasks related to collecting payments and keeping your accounts in order. To make the most of your relationship with your new service provider, it’s important to take some time to familiarize yourself with the features your Merchant Account Provider offers. It is also helpful to spend some time exploring the interface to understand the basic functions you will need to use regularly. In addition to customizing user access, full-service providers should make it easy to create and view reports such as monthly transaction volumes and year-over-year reports. You can also securely store payment information for regular customers, set up and obtain authorization for recurring payments, and perform many other useful tasks that improve the ease of payment management.
5. Integrate Your Merchant Account with Your Payment Collection Method
You’re almost ready to start taking advantage of your new merchant account. But before you can start processing card transactions, you must connect your new merchant account and your method of collecting customers’ payment information, such as your online shopping cart or in-store credit card reader.Good news: this is easier than you might think, even if you’re not particularly tech savvy. Keep reading for step-by-step instructions that will make integrating your merchant account a breeze.
Step-by-Step Guide to Integrating Your Merchant Account Software
Now that you have your merchant account set up, you’re probably eager to start taking advantage of your new ability to seamlessly and securely accept credit and debit card payments. The good news is, you’re almost there.
There’s one more thing to do before you can run your customers’ cards – you must integrate your merchant account software with your method of collecting customer payments. Essentially, what this means is that you need to connect your payment processor – or everything that is happening behind the scenes – with your customer-facing payment collection interface.
The process will be slightly different depending whether you collect in-person payments or run an online e-commerce business (or both). It will also depend on the hardware or shopping cart software that you are using to collect and process payments. The good news is that some Merchant Account Providers make this final piece of the puzzle a breeze. Here is a step-by-step guide to integrating your merchant account software for brick-and-mortar and online transactions.
How to Integrate Merchant Account Software for Brick and Mortar Payments
As a consumer, you are probably very familiar with how card payments are run in person: a cashier enters the transaction amount and then swipes your card, enters it into an EMV chip reader or taps it for authorization, and the transaction is complete. Integrating your merchant account software connects these actions with the backend communications that occur between the various entities and providers that enable payments. For brick-and-mortar payments, this requires physical hardware, such as the ZeroTouch Terminal, that captures the card information.
The specific steps you need to undertake to integrate your merchant account for brick and mortar payments will depend on the exact hardware and provider you are using to process transactions, and thus may vary from the process detailed here. But to give you an idea of what integrating your merchant account with your card reader may entail, here are the two-step instructions for merchants using PayJunction's ZeroTouch Terminal.
1. Set up your hardware
Before you can integrate your merchant account software, you will need to set up your card-reading terminal. The precise steps will vary based on your Merchant Account provider and equipment, but this should be a fairly simple process. For example, if you are using PayJunction’s ZeroTouch Terminal, set-up consists of removing the terminal from its packaging and connecting it to a power supply.
2. Sync your hardware with your virtual Merchant Account
The next step to integrate your Merchant Account is connecting your hardware with your online account. Once again, the specific process will depend on your hardware and provider. If you are using PayJunction’s ZeroTouch Terminal, the process looks like this:
- To sync your ZeroTouch Terminal to your Virtual Terminal, you will first need to make sure your Virtual Terminal account has been activated, following the final steps outlined in Chapter 5.
- Once your ZeroTouch Terminal is connected to a power source and turned on, log into your Merchant Account.
- On the “More” Menu, select “Smart Terminals” and then hit “Activate a New Smart Terminal.”
- There will be an activation code on the screen of your ZeroTouch Terminal. Enter this number into the Virtual Terminal and click “Activate.”
- Enter a name for your new ZeroTouch Terminal and select whether you would like to enable customer tips for transactions processed on this device.
- Click “Finished.” Your Merchant Account software is now integrated with your ZeroTouch Terminal.
How to Integrate Merchant Account Software for E-Commerce Transactions
If you are processing cards for e-commerce transactions online, your payment information will flow through a Payment Gateway that is connected to your merchant account. Integrating your merchant account information requires you to connect your Payment Gateway to your online shopping interface or shopping cart. To do this, follow these steps:
1. Select your Payment Gateway
For online payments, a Payment Gateway is the technical connector that acts as a go-between for the various entities involved in processing a transaction. When a customer checks out their purchase and enters their payment information, the Payment Gateway encrypts and securely transmits this information to the payment processor and communicates back the transaction authorization. While you can sign up for standalone Payment Gateway services, the simplest (and most cost-effective) way to begin integrating your merchant account is to find a single provider that offers both of these services.
2. Select your Shopping Cart
Just like it sounds, a shopping cart is the interface that allows a customer to select and purchase your products.
There are many out-of-the box shopping cart platforms from which e-commerce merchants can choose. As you evaluate shopping cart systems, look for one that offers easy integrations with your Payment Gateway.
3. Connect your Shopping Cart and your Payment Gateway
Once you have configured your shopping cart, you will need to connect it to your Payment Gateway in order to integrate your merchant account and process payments. The specific instructions may vary depending on your shopping cart, but you will need to access the administrative functions for your shopping cart and select your Payment Gateway from a list of compatible providers. You will then be prompted to provide your Payment Gateway login credentials. Once these are entered and confirmed, you will have successfully connected your Payment Gateway and integrated your merchant account.
Key Components of a Successful Merchant Account
Given the popularity of card payments, having a merchant account has become an essential service for many businesses. After all, without an account, you cannot process and collect customer payments using credit and debit cards.
Your merchant account manages all of the underlying processes and communications that need to happen in order for your business to get paid. While any provider can provide these basics, there are some key differences in the various features and components that providers may offer – and these variances can spell the difference between being able to process card transactions seamlessly and cost-effectively, or the adding needless hassles and complexity to the important work of getting paid.
If you are seeking a merchant account that will help set you up for success, here are four key components to look for.
A Successful Merchant Account Provides All the Services You Need to Enable Payments
Though a merchant account is essential for enabling card payments, it’s not the only service you’ll need to do so. If you are selling products and processing payments online, you will also need to work with a Payment Gateway, which acts as the invisible glue between the various entities involved in online payment processing. Your Payment Gateway securely receives and transmits all of the pieces of information involved in a transaction, communicating between your shopping cart software and the banks and Card Associations who play a role in the process.
While Payment Gateway providers do exist as standalone services, a successful Merchant Account Provider can help you to reduce the complexity of accepting card payments by including this vital service within their offerings. This can reduce the cost of credit card processing, as all-inclusive Merchant Account Providers typically do not charge extra gateway fees. Working with an all-in-one merchant account can also reduce the complexity of managing payments, as you will only need to deal with a single provider on billing and support matters. If your business processes in-person card payments, you should also look for a provider that includes state-of-the-art credit card terminals or any other hardware you may need.
A Successful Merchant Account Provider Allows You to Manage All Your Accounts in One Place
If you operate multiple business locations or offer both retail and online sales, then multiple providers aren’t the only type of complexity you’ll want to avoid. Each of these business types require their own separate merchant account. And each separate account potentially requires its own login credentials and has its own billing cycles. Keeping your financials for each account separate also limits your visibility into your business’s sales performance, because you can only create reports for that particular account.
Luckily, some Merchant Account Providers are capable of handling more than one merchant account with just a single login. The benefits are far greater than only having to remember one username and password (though that’s nice too). In addition to streamlining support and billing, a Merchant Account Provider that can manage all your accounts in one place can provide more sophisticated reporting – without the added number crunching and cross-referencing. Not only can you pull up batch and transaction reports for any individual account, but working with a single provider can allow you to generate side-by-side sales comparisons by branch or channel, along with other important business insights.
Even if you don’t yet have multiple merchant accounts, it’s worth looking for a provider that will be able to grow with your business. That way when the time comes, you won’t have to migrate your existing account to reap these benefits.
A Successful Merchant Account is Easy to Integrate
Running a business often means being a jack of all trades – in addition to managing the books and sales, you’ll need to be able to integrate back-end processes with your customer-facing interfaces (or you’ll need to keep a developer at your beck and call in order to respond to such needs quickly and effectively). Fortunately your Merchant Account Provider can help in this respect too if they offer user-friendly integrations that are easy to configure yourself. For example, if you can integrate your merchant account with your shopping cart with just a few menu selections and mouse clicks, then launching an online store can be much easier than you might expect.
A Successful Merchant Account Offers Best-in-Class Security
The potential security risks of accepting card payments may have you dragging your heels – and reasonably so. Not only is credit card fraud, and the associated liability, a legitimate concern, but if your business experiences a breach, then indirect costs, such as an inevitable hit to customer trust, can compound your losses.
A successful merchant account should provide the security you need to confidently process sales. Look for a provider that is PCI Level-1 compliant, the payment card industry’s highest standard of security (you can verify a Merchant Account Provider’s compliance by visiting the Visa Global Registry of Service Providers page). And to further thwart fraudsters, make sure your provider implements the Address Verification System (AVS) and Card Verification Value (CVV) to ensure a purchaser’s identity. We'll take a closer look at how your merchant account can help you to reduce the risk of fraud in the next chapter.
Fraud Security for Your Merchant Account
If you are considering starting to accept debit and credit card payments, or are looking to work with a new Merchant Account Provider to process your card transactions, it’s reasonable to have some concerns about how the risk of fraud may impact your business.
According to data from the most recent Federal Reserve Payments study5, card-not-present fraud, which occurs when thieves make a purchase using card account details but not a physical card (for example, a purchase made online or ordered over the phone), costs $4.57-billion annually. Although the adoption of EMV chip cards has successfully reduced some types of fraud, the subsequent liability shift means that a failure to properly process these cards increases the risk of chargebacks to businesses. Meanwhile, high-profile data breaches highlight the additional risks that thieves could access your customers’ payment details for nefarious purposes.
But the potential for fraud and fraud-related losses does not mean that you should decide against accepting card payments. With only 14 percent of Americans preferring to pay by cash, and 54 percent and 26 percent stating that they prefer to pay for purchases using debit cards and credit cards6, respectively, choosing not to accept card payments is a business risk in and of itself.
However, accepting card payments does not mean that you are at thieves’ mercy. There are protections you can put in place to reduce the risk of fraud to both you and your customers – and your Merchant Account Provider is an important partner when it comes to fraud security.
Here are three key ways that your Merchant Account Provider can help you to improve your security against fraud.
1. Your Merchant Account Provider Should Offer Top-Notch Protection Against Data Breaches
Processing card transactions involves the transmission of highly-sensitive data such as credit and debit card account details, which are highly attractive to fraudsters. Sending such details back and forth is an unavoidable part of processing such payments, but there are recognized protections that reduce the risk of thieves being able to access this risky information and that limit the data’s usefulness if a breach does occur.
The credit card industry makes it easy to identify Merchant Account Providers that meet these high standards for security. This is called PCI DSS – the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard – and looking for a Merchant Account Provider that is compliant is one of the most important things you can do to feel confident that your transmissions are secure. These industry standards are updated annually to ensure the latest vulnerabilities are addressed and include measures such as encryption and regular security audits. You can check whether a Merchant Account Provider is PCI compliant by looking them up on the Visa Global Registry of Service Providers Page.
2. Your Merchant Provider Should Offer EMV-Certified Card Terminals
As previously mentioned, the rollout of EMV chips has been a boon for fraud prevention – but the subsequent liability shift has increased risks for businesses. This is because if you run a transaction using an EMV chip card, but you swipe the card instead of inserting it into a chip reader, you will face a chargeback if the transaction turns out to be fraudulent.
The best way to protect yourself is by partnering with a Merchant Account Provider that offers EMV-certified terminals. While such card readers can be used for non-chip cards too, EMV-certified terminals are equipped with the right technology to properly verify chip cards. Furthermore, such terminals are capable of detecting when a chip card is being used and will prompt the cashier to insert the card and process it properly should they erroneously try to swipe it.
3. Your Merchant Account Provider Should Make It Easy to Verify Card Ownership
The prevalence of card-not-present fraud may not seem surprising given the challenges with physically verifying a card’s owner on transactions processed remotely. But in addition to simply requesting basic account information such as the card number and expiration date, there are additional details that can be used to cross-reference an account and verify that a purchaser is authorized to use the card. These are called AVS and CVV.
AVS stands for Address Verification System, and it requires the purchaser to enter either the billing address, ZIP code or a combination of the two that are attached to the card account in order to verify the purchase. This is information a fraudster who was able to obtain a card number is unlikely to know; asking for it is thus considered a way to verify that the authorized cardholder is the one making the purchase. As an added bonus, verifying this information reduces the risk level of a transaction, and thus can lower the Interchange fees levied on your sales.
The second type of auxiliary verification is called CVV, which stands for Card Certification Value. CVV is the three-digit security code on the back of most cards (for American Express, the CVV is four digits and is found on the front of the card). Unlike AVS, CVV does not lower your Interchange rate, but it is an additional way of checking that a purchaser has the actual payment card in hand.
Navigating a Merchant Account
As you’ve learned from this guide, merchant accounts involve more than just an application. It’s important to take time to fully understand what a merchant account involves, whether you are looking to set one up for the first time or currently have one. We invite you to download a copy of this guide to reference in the future, post it to your network to share with your peers and reach out to us with any questions.