The Complete Guide To Customer Financing For Small Businesses
There are many ways to build a successful business. Some business models involve selling lots of items each marked at a lower price, while others work by selling fewer things at a higher cost. With either path, the financial resources of your customers will come into play. You might soon realize that not everyone can afford the more expensive things you sell; similarly, not everyone has the resources or desire to buy a lot of small items in one purchase. Is there a way to solve this problem and increase your sales without cutting your prices?
Of course there is. In fact, there are many ways. One way is to advertise, so that a larger number of potential customers are brought to your door. Statistically, you should make more sales. Another way is to offer financing to your customers. Financing allows those who are wavering on a purchase because of the price to buy from you right away and then pay for the goods/services in installments in the future. This way, you don’t lose a sale to sticker shock. This is called customer financing or, sometimes, consumer financing.
Broadly speaking, you can provide customer financing yourself, or you can use a third-party financing specialist. As to how to do either, along with their pluses and minuses, read on to find out.
Table of Contents
- How Does Customer Financing Programs Work?
- Is Consumer Financing A Good Fit For Small Businesses?
- How To Offer Financing To Customers: Options For Online & Brick-and-Mortar Businesses
- How Much Does It Cost To Offer Customer Financing?
- Ten Customer Financing Programs For Small Businesses
- Should I Offer Third-Party Financing For My Customers?
How Does Customer Financing Programs Work?
By customer financing, we mean any sort of buy-now-pay-later arrangement. Typically, the customer will have to pay a portion of the total cost before the goods/services are released. This sort of financing is usually a business-to-customer (B2C) arrangement instead of a business-to-business (B2B) arrangement.
If you want to offer customer financing, you can either provide that service in-house or you can work with a third party. We’ll discuss each option in more detail below.
In-House Customer Financing
By in-house financing, we mean that you, the merchant, take all the financial risk — and possibly reap all the financial rewards — when letting a customer walk away with your merchandise (or receive the benefit of your services) before you’ve collected in full. If you wish to consider this avenue, there are some items you might want to think through first.
Know that when you actually start to finance your customer’s purchases, you’ll have a period of reduced income because you’re not receiving the full payment for the goods or services you sell. At the same time, your customers might be making a greater number of purchases, so you would need to pay out to replenish your inventory. You’ll need to make sure that you have enough money to run the day-to-day operations of your business while you wait for the installment payments to come in and become a regular part of your cash flow.
If you are right and your customers start to buy more than before because they can now finance their purchases, then your cash flow should eventually increase after an initial dip.
When it comes to lending money and charging interest, both state and federal usury and debt collection laws may apply. If you fail to follow them, you might have to pay fines or be subject to other penalties.
When you provide financing to your customers, you might want to charge interest on the loan. If that is the case, be sure to check your state’s usury laws that govern, among other things, the highest interest rate you can charge. To complicate matters, if you sell online and a customer is in another state, you might be subject to that other state’s usury laws as well.
If your customer defaults on a loan, you might wish to collect that debt. Unfortunately, what you can and cannot do are also governed by federal and state laws. The laws typically restrict you on the amount you can collect per type of asset and how you are allowed to collect it. Again, the laws differ by state, so this can get fairly complicated fairly quickly. (Here’s an article from the consumer’s standpoint.)
If you wish to start an in-house consumer financing operation, be sure to talk to a lawyer specializing in this area first. They can help you design a set of best practices that are best suited for your type of business — and that stay within legal limits.
If you decide to start your own financing department, you’d probably have to hire new people. For instance, for every application, you might want to pull a credit report before deciding whether or not to lend. There would be additional paperwork and internal records to keep as the customer pays off the debt. If the customer fails to pay the debt, you would have to have someone to work on the failure to pay in some way, even if it’s just sending the account to a debt collection company.
Additional internal processes will have to be set up to smoothly move a customer through each step, from application to approval to installment invoicing. All this requires additional employee hours. So, whether you hire one person or ten people to handle the financing, you would have to consider these operational changes and expenses before making a final decision.
Lastly, not every customer will pay off their loan. We covered the legal aspects of debt collection above, but the more important aspect of bad debt is the financial impact on your business’s cash flow. Know how much bad debt your business can absorb without running into cash flow issues before you decide if you wish to move forward.
Third-Party Customer Financing
It’s always nice to be able to keep your hard-earned money, but now that we’ve gone through some of the major considerations for providing customer financing in-house, you might start to see the headaches that are involved as well.
Fortunately, there is an alternative. There are companies specifically set up to do customer financing or just debt collection (if you continue to wish to keep a portion of the work yourself). Some of these companies charge you nothing for sending a customer to them for financing, but others want a fee so that they charge you for sending a customer to them. They will also keep all the fees/interest the customer will pay to obtain financing. In return, they take care of all the legal and operational complications of customer financing for you.
If you continue to be interested in working with a third-party financing company, be sure to understand the details of how the financing company works before signing a contract. Understand your expected sales increase and your expected profit. If you sell low margin items, make sure that these financing charges do not exceed your profit margin. Otherwise, you would have gone through all this trouble for nothing.
Is Consumer Financing A Good Fit For Small Businesses?
Many large businesses provide consumer financing. For instance, you can finance a car purchase through any one of the major car manufacturers. Consumer financing is also available from some chain store home furniture sellers or large electronics stores. These are all large businesses that can afford a separate department–and sometimes even a separate corporate subsidiary–to take care of consumer financing.
But you’re a small business owner. Maybe you have only a handful of employees, and each of them is already busy taking care of other things. You already work twelve-hour days and things are still not done. How do you provide consumer financing when you’re already stretched so thin?
You might want to consider using third-party customer financing companies. This doesn’t preclude you from trying in-house financing in the future, if you pick one with a contract with no early termination penalties. It’s a quick way to get started, and it introduces you to an industry that you can become more familiar with, so you can make a more informed decision in the future.
Below are some pros and cons for your consideration.
Pros To Offering Third-Party Customer Financing
- No Need To Increase Staff: The most obvious advantage is that you won’t need to hire more people to run the financing. As a small business owner, you know how difficult it is to find the right person–one who has the knowledge needed as well as the proper “fit” for your business. It might take several tries to ultimately find the right person, but with third-party financing, you won’t need to do that.
- No Need To Worry About How The Details Work (e.g. credit checks): There are a lot of things you would have to set up from scratch to start an in-house customer financing operation. You’ll have to have the application forms, know where to run credit checks, figure out how much risk you can take, and give the customer the credit needed to make the purchase. With third-party financing, you won’t have to worry about any of this. You just send the customer to the financing company, and they take care of the rest with their existing workflow.
- Legal Compliance: As already touched on above, when it comes to lending money, there are a lot of legal issues that could arise. If you’re in the US, then not only would you have to understand federal laws that could affect your operations, you’ll have to understand multiple state laws as well, if you operate an online store. These laws change from time to time, so you can’t set up a process and forget it. It would be easier to let a third-party financing company worry about following the laws. They might still (hopefully only accidentally) violate these laws, but at least if they do, they would be responsible for it. (Be sure the contract clearly states they’re responsible for any legal compliance issues.)
- Less Need To Worry About Cash Flow: While you might still have to invest more money into your business to have enough inventory for increased sales, you are less likely to have to worry about a healthy cash flow by using a third-party financing company. A lot of these companies will fund you within two to three days of purchase, so you shouldn’t have to worry about cash flow at all.
Cons To Offering Third-Party Customer Financing
- The Reputation Of The Financing Company Will Affect Your Own Reputation: A company’s reputation, especially where money is concerned, matters. When you recommend a financing company to your customer, like it or not, you’re guaranteeing that the company is reputable. If this turns out to be incorrect, then the bad reputation rubs off on you too. A business’s reputation is everything, and a bad one will run customers away from you.
- Customers With Bad Experiences Might Not Come Back: Even if customers clearly understand that the financing company has nothing to do with your business, a bad experience with the financing company could still prevent them from coming back to you. Their shopping experience is ruined, and it’s highly likely they will subconsciously connect that bad experience with you. It’s not difficult to imagine that they might go elsewhere to shop in the future.
- Customers With Bad Experiences Might Blame You: Related to the above, we know that people don’t always notice things that they should. This is why there will always be a portion of the customer base that thinks you and the third-party financing company are one and the same. If anything goes wrong, it’s very likely that they will blame you for the financing company’s mistakes. They might go online to complain, giving you a bad reputation that you don’t deserve.
- You Must Share Revenue: Naturally, these third-party financing companies can’t provide their services for free. In fact, in addition to keeping the interest and fees paid by the consumer for the loan, many will want you to pay them for their services as well. Maybe your margins are high and you don’t mind, but if you do mind, then you’ll need to pick the financing company carefully.
- Possible Long-Term Contract: Some third-party financing companies will require you to sign a long-term contract. As with all contracts, you’ll need to look at the possible penalties if you need to get out of the contract early. One contract we reviewed when researching for this article allows you to cancel but requires a 12-month notice period, which is basically the same as not being able to cancel at will. Make sure you’re not stuck with a company that you won’t want to work with for one reason or another (e.g. bad reputation) for longer than necessary.
How To Offer Financing To Customers: Options For Online & Brick-and-Mortar Businesses
If you have decided to offer financing to your customers, the way you tell your customers that financing is available and invite them to apply will depend on whether you operate a physical store or an online store — or both. It also depends on whether you’ve decided to do this in-house or through a third-party specialist.
If you’ve decided to offer financing in-house, then you can advertise any way you want to, as long as you have the application readily available for an interested customer to sign up. However, if you’ve decided to go with a third-party provider, then there are several ways to deliver information about the financing offer and payment options.
Online Customer Financing
For webstores, customer financing is often offered at checkout. The customer sees a financing button, along with other payment choices such as credit or debit cards. If the customer clicks the financing button, they must respond to a few questions. A “soft” credit check is performed. With some companies (e.g. Affirm, Afterpay), a decision to lend is made based on the soft check. With other companies (e.g. Square), a hard credit check is eventually required. (If you’re curious, this article explains the difference between soft and hard credit checks.)
After this, the customer is presented with a choice of how they want to finance the purchase–i.e. how many installments, how much per installment, and interest or other fees. Once the customer makes a pick, the online merchant is paid by the financing company, typically within a day or two after shipping.
As to the rest of online financing, a merchant is often supplied with banners and buttons that they can place on their website to announce that financing is available.
In-Store Customer Financing
If you run a physical store, then customer financing is done a little differently, though you’ll still need a connection to the internet just like online financing.
There are several ways a customer at a physical store can apply for financing. One financing company offers free-standing kiosks that customers can use to apply. Tablets can also be loaded with financing application software for the store clerk to hand to the customer. Yet others simply have the store clerk ask a few questions of the customer at checkout and enter that information online. Lastly, a customer can apply for some specific amount beforehand, the financing company can issue the customer a single-use virtual card, and the card number can be keyed in by the merchant just like any keyed-in credit card charge.
How Much Does It Cost To Offer Customer Financing?
The cost to offer customer financing runs the gamut, from free to something similar to the swipe of a credit card. It’s not always easy to find this cost on the provider’s website, however. (It’s much easier to find out how much the customer will be charged for taking the financing offer.) Very often, the company simply does not disclose the charges to the merchant but instead tries to sell their services as a way to increase sales. You can only find out the cost after you contact them.
Ten Customer Financing Programs For Small Businesses
For this article, we did a quick survey of the companies currently providing customer financing services for small to mid-sized businesses. We briefly discuss the companies we found below, but we haven’t reviewed most of them, so please be aware that we pass no definitive judgment about the quality of service each provides. We hope to have some reviews for you in the future.
In looking through these companies, we find that they can generally be categorized into three groups. The first group contains more traditional financing companies. Financing applications may take a day or two to process and be approved. A second group includes the so-called fintech companies–they have their origins in the tech startup world, and they’re here to “move fast and break things.” These companies tend to do a soft credit pull and then give you a loan within seconds. These loans tend to be of a smaller amount and they typically must be paid back within a year. Some of them are fee-based and do not charge interest. The third group seems to be a hybrid, featuring some characteristics of both the traditional and the fintech companies. They also do a soft credit pull and sometimes can offer you a loan for a very small amount very quickly. Typically, larger loans are also available with these companies.
Grouping the vendors we found below into the three categories above, we have:
- Traditional: Flexxbuy, LendPro, Snap Financing
- Fintech: Affirm, Afterpay, ViaBill, Vyze
- Hybrid: PayPal Credit, Square Installments, VIP Financing Solutions
With some of these companies, it was hard to find merchant-related information–i.e. sign up cost, processing fee, contract terms, etc. These companies tend to try to sell their services by touting how much more a merchant can sell if the customer had the ability to buy more. Signing up with them might mean that you never get to see any income from the financing side. Still, they seem to be worth investigating, so we encourage you to find a few that you might be interested in and contact them for details.
Lastly, if you look at the way these companies work–especially the fintech companies–you’ll see that there’s a strong potential that they might replace the entire merchant processing side of the credit card industry. If you look carefully about the nature of the credit approvals, loan amounts, and repayment terms, you’ll see that they work like charge cards, where each charge is judged separately based on the person’s current debt load and creditworthiness. It’s very similar to the American Express model. From a merchant’s standpoint, it might be a good idea to understand how these financing companies work, in case they do replace some credit card company functions in the future.
With the above in mind, here are some of the customer service companies we found that you might wish to look into further.
Flexxbuy seems to fall into the more traditional side of the consumer lending business. It has a relationship with over 20 lenders in its backend and can quickly set a customer up with the right lender, depending on the customer’s credit score.
With Flexxbuy, the customer can get a loan of up to $50,000. The website isn’t quite clear, but the wording in various places suggests that smaller loans might be approved instantly, but the larger ones can take up to 48 hours. There is a formal application to be submitted by the merchant. The customer doesn’t have to pay a penalty for pre-payment, and loan payback can be from 12 months to a few years.
Flexxbuy says the cost to the merchant is “customized,” and, since they work with several lenders, this probably just means that the cost varies depending on the lender. To sign up with Flexxbuy, there is an enrollment/setup fee for the merchant.
LendPro, like Flexxbuy, seems to fall towards the traditional lender side of the industry. They claim that they have lending relationships with more than two dozen lenders on the backend to provide financing for a wide range of amounts and for all types of credit scores.
When a customer finances through LendPro, the lending relationship is directly between the customer and LendPro. LendPro can integrate their financing application software with your website, so customers can see their financing options at checkout and file an application if they are inclined. They also have physical kiosks for physical stores, where a customer can apply for credit in person. A merchant can also buy a tablet and install LendPro’s software on it and then hand the tablet to the customer to apply for financing.
There are no other disclosures about how a contract with LendPro would work or how much they would charge the merchant per transaction.
Snap Financing calls itself a “lease to own” company. This means that, as a merchant, you might be sending your merchandise out to consumers, but you still own the item until the lease term is up. Then, the consumer can either buy the item outright or return it to you.
Lease-to-own arrangements are typically used for large furniture, appliances, electronics, and computers. If the goods are damaged during the lease, they still belong to you. (Presumably, you can deduct the damage from the price.) With Snap Financing, you’re working with a somewhat traditional business model. While it’s not clear on the website, it seems from the nature of the business model that the merchant still owns the sales contract. If the customer defaults on the (unsecured and high-interest) loan, then the matter is between Snap and the customer.
Snap funds your business within 2-3 days once the leased goods are delivered, so you are fully paid.
Affirm falls squarely within the fintech label, and it has the pedigree to prove it. The company was founded by Max Levchin, who was one of the founders of PayPal. Even now, it’s still taking money from venture capital firms, with the latest round of funding raising $300 million USD.
Affirm’s website is geared more towards the consumer than the merchant, so there are not a lot of details on how (or if) they charge the merchant to process a customer’s loan. On its backend, Affirm’s loans are financed by two banks: Cross River Bank and Celtic Bank.
The Affirm financing application can be integrated into various eCommerce shopping platforms and be shown to a customer at checkout as a push-button option. When a consumer applies, Affirm performs only a soft credit pull and then makes a decision to lend based on that pull. There’s no stated loan limit. If the purchase is made from an online store, then the payment can be applied at checkout. If the payment is at a store that’s not affiliated with Affirm, then Affirm issues the customer a single-use virtual card that can be used like a credit card. To find out more, read our full post, What You Need To Know Before Adding An Affirm Loan Option To Your Site.
Afterpay is yet another fintech company. It has a business model that looks very similar to that of Affirm, and it is also funded by venture capital investors. While Affirm seems to focus on providing financing for goods and services that cost a bit more, Afterpay seems to be focused on things that cost a little less.
Afterpay discloses a little more on their website on how they work with merchants. When the merchant makes a sale, the purchase is made between the merchant and the buyer. But the merchant immediately assigns the purchase contract to Afterpay so that Afterpay has the right to recoup nonpayment. After that, the merchant is still responsible for taking care of complaints and returns, but any questions on payments belong to Afterpay.
Afterpay’s services integrate with many existing online shopping carts. Consumers are presented with Afterpay as a payment choice at checkout, and they can apply for credit that way.
Afterpay checks the consumer’s credit with a soft credit pull and, once approved, the consumer is presented with several installment payment options and can see fees and the payment amount for each. The consumer picks whichever option that appeals to them. They can be charged a late fee, but there’s no interest or service fee on the amount borrowed, and of course, the customer can prepay or fully pay before the payment is due.
To borrow from Afterpay, the consumer will have to have an Afterpay account. A credit or debit card must be linked to the account, so Afterpay can automatically withdraw the installment payment from the account. (Which begs the question: why not just use the credit card instead?)
ViaBill is a European fintech startup. Merchants in Denmark, Norway, and the US can sign up with ViaBill.
Like Affirm, ViaBill focuses on bigger ticket items. They offer easy integration with online shopping platforms, easy and fast approvals, and installment payments linked to the debit or credit card used to set up the consumer’s account. The payment is broken into four installments, with the first installment due immediately at checkout. Afterward, ViaBill assumes the risk of fraud and credit risk. If the customer fails to pay, they are charged a late fee (but no “penalty fee”), and ViaBill handles everything related to non-payment/collections.
For merchants, ViaBill charges 2.90% + $0.30 per transaction, which is comparable to some credit card processing charges. After the goods are shipped, the merchant assigns the right to receive payments to ViaBill, but ViaBill may assign the right back to the merchant to deal with chargebacks, disputes, item returns, and some other conditions.
When a merchant signs with ViaBill, the contract can be terminated by ViaBill at any time for any reason or no reason, while the merchant can only cancel for any reason or no reason in the first three months. Thereafter, the merchant must give ViaBill 12-months notice before the contract can be canceled.
There is a setup fee to connect up to ViaBill. They fund the purchase five days after shipping. Be aware that if you sign with ViaBill, they don’t want you to work with any other consumer financing provider unless you both agree in writing that you can.
Vyze is a fintech startup that began in 2008. It was acquired by Mastercard in 2019, so if you sign up with them, you at least know that they are backed by a reputable business. Vyze doesn’t seem to be doing anything too different from the other fintech startups, however, so there might not be any other specific benefits to working with Vyze.
Like other fintech companies, it seems Vyze only does a soft credit pull; consumers can apply with just a few quick personal details. A customer can apply online, or if at the checkout of a physical store, apply from the store’s tablet loaded with Vyze’s app.
Once Vyze has the customer’s credit information, the software queries a first lender for approval. If the first lender rejects the application, then the software automatically pings a second lender in the queue, and then a third, and so on until one lender approves the financing.
Vyze’s website does not have much information for the merchant, so it’s difficult to tell if/how much they charge you for each customer you bring them, how they would handle returns or chargebacks, or any other details of a merchant’s contract with them.
VIP Financing Solutions
VIP Financing Solutions has an interesting business model. It seems to be a credit card processor that also does consumer financing (or vice versa). You can get Clover POS stations from them (it’s unclear if they sell or lease them, so be careful). They also have multiple lenders in the backend to support their financing activities.
No matter what you do with VIP, whether it’s credit card processing or customer financing, you’re charged the same rate: a 3.0% “Merchant Fee.” The website also claims that you’re not charged a credit card processing fee, but that 3% seems to cover more than enough of the usual fees associated with credit card processing. Once the charge is cleared, you are funded within 48 hours.
As to financing, VIP offers three types of financing:
- A Store-Branded Credit Card: The shopper can be instantly approved and walk out with a card, which basically is a revolving line of credit specific to your business.
- A No-Credit-Check Loan: The amount can be between $500-$35,000. The repayment is divided into four installments, to be paid within a short period of time.
- A Traditional Personal Loan: Approval can take a few days, with repayment plans of up to 60 months.
We couldn’t find a merchant contract on VIP’s site, so we don’t know other details about how VIP works with its merchants.
If you are already a PayPal merchant, then you can offer consumer financing through PayPal Credit. Just activate the service as a form of permissible payment. Then you can advertise that the service is available by adding promotional banners already prepared by PayPal to your website.
When a customer uses PayPal Credit, the merchant is paid upfront (i.e. no need to wait for the customer to completely pay back the loan to PayPal). PayPal does not disclose how much it charges per transaction, but it also doesn’t say that the cost would be different from other PayPal transaction charges. So, each transaction likely costs the same as other PayPal payment transactions.
From the consumer’s standpoint, PayPal Credit is a loan between PayPal and the consumer. Once PayPal’s underwriter approves the loan, the consumer has to make minimum monthly payments. For purchases over $99, as long as the consumer pays the loan back within six months, there’s no interest on the loan. However, if the loan is not paid back completely within six months, interest is charged from the date of purchase.
PayPal will pull a soft credit check before approving a loan. The minimum starting credit is $250, and this might be increased from time to time. You can use the money in PayPal Credit to send to family and friends, just like sending cash. And, just like sending cash, you pay 2.9% + $0.30 per this person-to-person transaction.
The service is available to US consumers only.
As with PayPal Credit, if you’re already a Square merchant, you can use Square Installments. Square Installments can be used from the point-of-sale or from your virtual terminal, and they cost 3.5% per transaction. You can also integrate Square Installments into your electronic invoice, and that service costs 2.9% + $0.30 per transaction.
For a merchant to sign up, navigate to your dashboard and look to see if you’re already approved for Installments (approval sometimes depends on industry or location, business type, and/or volume and price of goods sold). If you are, then you’ll have to watch a video and answer a few questions to make sure you understand the terms of service. That’s all you need to do. You can cancel the program at any time. There’s no added integration needed, and Square can provide all the buttons and banners you need to advertise online to your customers that the service is available.
For your customers to apply for financing, they follow a link customized for your business and then enter their information. They will quickly get an offer after a soft credit pull, and the offer will include various monthly plans and total fees. Square pulls a full credit check if the customer elects to go forward with financing. Square Installments are used for purchases of $150 and up and the repayment terms are for up to 12 months.
For physical stores, Square Installments can be used with a digital card, which can be keyed in like any other purchase. The merchant is paid right away, and if the customer misses a payment, it doesn’t affect the merchant.
Here’s a more detailed article about Square Installments, if you’re interested in learning more.
Should I Offer Third-Party Financing For My Customers?
There are a lot of data-based arguments out there that suggest that making financing available to your customers translates to more sales. As a small business owner, the easiest way to do this is to go through a third-party financing company so that you won’t have to deal with the paperwork, the possible cash flow issues, the legal aspects of lending, and the defaults when a customer refuses to pay.
Third-party lenders aren’t willing to do all this for free, of course. Some will charge you a fee, and it’s important to understand how this fee works. It’s also important to think through other issues, such as how chargebacks and returns will be handled. Of the companies we surveyed above, many do not disclose much about how they work with the merchant at all. If you decide that you’re interested in working with one of these companies and contact them, be sure to ask questions such as:
- Do they charge you for sending a customer to apply for financing?
- Do you get a finder’s fee for sending customers?
- How do they deal with merchandise returns? Are you required to accept a return, or can you simply refuse? Do you have to return the money to the customer? Or is that handled between the financing company and the customer? And if so, will the merchant have to return the money to the financing company?
- How do they deal with disputes/chargebacks? What about fraud, such as a customer claiming that you didn’t ship a product when you actually did?
- How do they deal with defaults? Some companies assign defaults back to you and you’d have to deal with that, so that seems to create more headaches for you.
- Who handles customer service? If this is divided between the merchant and the financing company, how do you share the responsibility?
- How quickly are you funded, and at which point in the process does a sale count as a sale?
You might have more questions, so be sure to write them down before you contact a financing company. That way, you won’t accidentally leave out a question.
If you decide that providing customer financing is just not for you, but you still want to explore ideas on how to increase the cash you have at hand to grow your business, be sure to check out some of our lending articles. We have picks for the best small business loans, advice on how to get a line of credit, and even information on startup grants. You might also want to consider invoice factoring or invoice financing.
Lastly, if you have had any experience with any of the providers above or want us to do a detailed review of a specific provider, do let us know by leaving a note below.