Six Signs Your Small Business Needs To Switch Payment Processors
If the photo above accurately depicts how you feel when reviewing your monthly credit card processing statement, then this article is for you. While every business owner understands that paying for credit card processing is a necessary cost that ultimately helps to increase your sales and profitability, it’s easy to become frustrated with all the hidden fees that come with maintaining a merchant account.
Unfortunately, hidden fees are just one of many things that can go wrong in your relationship with your credit card processor. Expensive equipment leasing fees, constantly rising processing costs, and poor customer service when you have a problem are just a few of the problems you could face after you’ve signed up with a provider. These problems are all compounded by the fact that many providers will lock you into a long-term, automatically-renewing contract that makes it very difficult (and possibly quite expensive) to drop them in favor of a competitor.
In this article, we’ll discuss six of the most common problems that can arise when working with a credit card processor. Although the number of specific things that can go wrong is virtually unlimited, most issues that merchants encounter generally fall into one of these six major categories of problems. Note that not all the problems you face will justify switching to a different processor. In fact, dropping your current provider and switching to a new one may be difficult and expensive, as well as potentially leaving you without the ability to accept credit cards during the transition. We’ll explain which problems are serious enough to warrant switching providers, and which are not. Finally, we’ll give you some pointers to make changing providers as smooth and painless as possible, if that’s the best solution.
Table of Contents
1. Expensive Equipment Leases
“Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” That might be what you’re thinking after you’ve watched your credit card terminal leasing fees pile up month after month until you realize that you’ve spent more than the terminal costs to buy outright – and there’s no end in sight to your lease.
We get it. You need a credit card terminal to process credit and debit card transactions in-person, and they’re kind of expensive (especially for a small business that’s just getting started). Paying a relatively small monthly leasing fee sounds like a better deal than dropping several hundred dollars on a shiny new terminal that might become obsolete in a few years. Credit card processors know this, and they’ve come up with all sorts of arguments aimed at convincing you that a lease is in your best interest. It saves you money on up-front costs, they’ll say. It’s a tax write-off, they’ll say. It protects you in case your terminal is ever damaged, they’ll say.
Unfortunately, none of these arguments are true when you consider the total cost of ownership if you lease a terminal. Put simply, leasing a credit card machine is never cost-effective in the long run. Most standard leasing contracts lock you into a four-year lease that cannot be canceled for any reason. You’re effectively on the hook for all 48 lease payments as soon as you sign your contract. While $25 a month to lease a terminal might sound like a good idea in comparison to spending several hundred dollars to buy the same equipment outright, those monthly payments will add up to $1,200 over the life of your lease. Even then, you still won’t own your equipment. Considering that the average full-featured credit card terminal can be purchased for around $200-300, this is a huge rip-off.
Credit card machine leasing has gained such a terrible reputation in the processing industry that most providers who offer leased equipment do so through subsidiaries or third-party vendors. Ironically, some of the worst credit card machine leasing companies in the industry work on behalf of some of the largest and best-known processors. A good example of this is First Data Global Leasing, which doesn’t even try to hide its relationship with mammoth processor First Data.
Being stuck in a terminal lease is reason enough to consider switching providers. Unfortunately, you’re very unlikely to avoid paying the remaining monthly payments on your lease, regardless of the circumstances. Check to see when your leasing contract started and how many monthly payments you have remaining. The total of these payments is what it will cost you to get out of the lease. Most of our top-rated providers will sell you a preprogrammed terminal that’s yours to keep indefinitely for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, leased equipment provided by your old processor will usually have to be returned in order to close your account, even if you’ve made all the monthly payments required under your leasing contract.
2. Hardware & Software Compatibility Issues
Overpriced leases aren’t the only equipment issues that might cause you to rethink your relationship with your current merchant account provider. Compatibility issues can prevent you from realizing the full potential of your processing equipment or even block you from being able to accept credit/debit card payments at all. Likewise, software compatibility issues can affect payment gateways and virtual terminals and are a particular concern for ecommerce merchants.
While most compatibility issues can be identified and (hopefully) corrected when you first set up your account, you should also be concerned about the possibility that your provider isn’t keeping up with the latest changes in processing hardware. This is a particular concern if you’ve been with the same provider for a long period of time. For example, not being able to accept EMV payments because your provider hasn’t upgraded your credit card terminal to an EMV-compliant machine is a serious security issue and could potentially leave you liable for fraudulent transactions. The EMV liability shift occurred in October 2015, and since then merchants have been on the hook if they swipe a magstripe on a credit card with an EMV chip and the transaction turns out to be fraudulent. If you’re still swiping transactions on an old, non-EMV-capable terminal, you need to upgrade ASAP! If your provider won’t help you with this issue, it’s time to find a new provider.
The ability to accept NFC-based payment methods such as Apple Pay and Android Pay isn’t as critically important, but it’s still something you should take into consideration. As more and more consumers discover the ease and convenience of paying with their smartphones (or smart watches), they’re naturally going to be more inclined to favor businesses that support this payment method. While not having NFC-capable hardware won’t affect your liability for fraudulent transactions, it could put you at a competitive disadvantage. Fortunately, most modern terminals that accept EMV cards also include support for NFC-based payments.
Point-of-sale (POS) systems, popular with restaurants and some other categories of businesses, present similar issues when it comes to being able to accept newer payment methods. However, a POS system represents a significantly larger investment than most credit card terminals, and many systems are only compatible with certain processors. If you’re thinking about switching merchant account providers and you own a POS system, you’ll want to do some careful research to ensure that your system will be compatible with a new provider before making the switch. Any cost savings you hope to realize with a new provider could disappear completely if you also have to replace your current POS system.
eCommerce merchants don’t have as many things to worry about when it comes to compatibility, but there are still potential problems they might encounter. Switching merchant account providers may or may not also require you to switch to a new payment gateway. Fortunately, most providers offer support for Authorize.Net (see our review), which is probably the most popular and well-known gateway on the market. If you’re using a proprietary gateway offered by your current provider, you’ll probably have to switch to a new gateway if you drop your provider in favor of a new one.
Virtual terminals can also present some issues when it comes to switching providers. Unlike payment gateways, there isn’t a single virtual terminal that’s widely available and is compatible with any provider. Fortunately, the functionality of a virtual terminal is usually limited to just accepting payments, so you shouldn’t have any problems if you switch products. If you’re using a card reader in conjunction with your virtual terminal to replace a physical credit card machine, you should probably replace your magstripe-only reader if you haven’t done so already. Unfortunately, EMV-compliant card readers that connect via USB and work with a laptop or desktop computer are still relatively uncommon. This is probably due to the decline in popularity of virtual terminals among merchants now that mobile payments systems provide the same capabilities and work with both smartphones and tablets.
3. High Processing Rates
Watching your processing costs go up with each new monthly account statement is one of the most common reasons for merchants to leave their current provider and switch to a competitor. The credit card processing industry is notorious for luring merchants in with low “introductory” rates and fees, then raising them after a few months. This practice, combined with the tendency to lock merchants into long-term contracts, makes closing your account a difficult and potentially expensive proposition. However, it’s not impossible, and sometimes it’s worth the added expense to get away from a predatory merchant account provider.
The first thing you need to understand about processing costs is that your provider doesn’t have complete control over them in most cases. Interchange fees are set by the major credit card associations and constitute the majority of your processing costs. If you’re on an interchange-plus pricing plan, your provider merely passes the interchange fees onto you and takes an additional markup for their services. Membership pricing (also called subscription-based pricing) is similar in that interchange fees are passed directly onto the merchant. However, with membership pricing, you’ll pay a fixed monthly subscription fee instead of a per-transaction percentage fee, which should bring a measure of stability to your month-to-month processing costs.
You should also understand that interchange fees aren’t set in stone. There are many different fees that might be charged, depending on the nature of the transaction and what kind of business category you’re in. Each credit card association publishes its own set of interchange fees, and they usually update them twice a year. While some fees occasionally go up, and others actually go down, the overall trend is for interchange rates to gradually rise over time. While this tendency will account for some of your increased processing costs, be aware that your provider might also raise the markup portion of your fees as well.
Merchants on a tiered pricing plan seem to be the most affected by gradually rising processing costs. Your provider is always going to set their rates to ensure a profit even when they have to pay the highest interchange fees, so naturally, they’re going to raise your overall rates whenever there’s an increase in any of the underlying interchange fees. This vulnerability to increased rates is just one of several reasons why we recommend against tiered pricing. If you find that your merchant account is on a tiered pricing plan, we recommend that you either request to change to an interchange-plus plan – or switch providers if your current provider won’t approve it.
Flat-rate pricing, such as that offered by Square (see our review) and other payment service providers (PSPs), brings a measure of predictability to your processing costs. Flat rates also usually don’t rise over time. At the same time, flat-rate pricing actually becomes too expensive as your business grows over time. Once your business reaches a certain processing volume (usually around $5,000 per month), flat rate pricing will cost you more than an interchange-plus plan, even when you factor in the additional monthly and annual fees that come with a full-service merchant account. Square is a great option for a small or newly-established business, but you’ll eventually want to switch providers once your business reaches a higher volume.
Of all the various processing rate pricing plans, interchange-plus pricing is the only model that will never be too expensive for your business. However, the various account fees that inevitably come with a full-service merchant account could be a burden for very small businesses. Determining when your business has reached the point where it’s advantageous to switch from Square (or a similar payment service provider) and upgrade to a full-service merchant account can be tricky. Factors such as your average monthly volume, average ticket size, and relative percentage of debit and credit card transactions all affect this determination. Obviously, you’ll also want to compare a price quote from a merchant account provider to what you’re paying now before deciding to switch providers. For help in making an accurate analysis of which option will be best for your business, we highly recommend that you consider our Cost Analysis Workbook. It tells you everything you need to know about how the various processing rate pricing plans work and includes spreadsheets where you can enter actual numbers from your business and compare them to price quotes from competing providers. It’s the most accurate option available to help you make the most informed decision on switching providers.
4. High Undisclosed Fees
Merchant account providers are notorious for adding on numerous “junk” fees to their services, often without disclosing them during the sales process. Now, let’s be clear: Your provider has every right to charge you a reasonable fee to compensate for services they’re actually providing, and to make a reasonable profit from those fees. However, the processing industry is notorious for ratcheting up fees well beyond a reasonable level, and for adding on new fees that aren’t tied to any actual service they’re providing for your business. If your provider is adding unreasonable fees to your bill, it’s time to consider switching to a new provider. Here are some of the more common fees that frequently get abused:
- Account Application Fee: Merchant account providers traditionally used to charge a fee of up to $150 just to process your application for an account. While your provider does incur some costs in processing your application, the fee charged is usually way out of proportion to their actual expense. Today, most reputable providers have eliminated the account application fee altogether. In some cases, a provider will refund your application fee in full if they have to turn down your request for an account. The exception is for high-risk businesses, which require much more extensive credit and background checks before an account can be approved.
- Account Setup Fee: This is another fee that is gradually being phased out due to competition within the processing industry. Your provider wants your business and stands to make a handsome profit by providing you with an account. Setup costs are minimal once an account has been approved and underwritten, so you should never have to pay this fee.
- PCI Compliance Fee: This isn’t a “junk” fee per se, but it has the potential to be abused by unscrupulous providers who charge a fee without offering any services to help keep your account in compliance. As long as your provider is performing the required security scans, offering data breach insurance, and keeping you informed of any issues that might affect your compliance status, this is a reasonable fee. The industry standard is around $99.00 per year, but we prefer to see this fee charged on a monthly basis. For more information, see our article, PCI Compliance Fees: A Fair Processing Charge Or A Junk Fee?.
- PCI Non-Compliance Fee: In addition to charging for PCI compliance, some providers will also assess a penalty if your account is not compliant. This usually occurs if you have neglected to keep your PCI Self-Assessment Questionnaire (SAQ) updated. We consider this to be a “junk” fee because your provider is charging you a penalty without providing any services to help you get back into compliance with PCI-DSS standards. At the same time, it’s easy to avoid ever having to pay this fee by simply keeping your SAQ updated and complying with any other PCI-DSS requirements that apply to your business. We’d also note that most providers, including some of our highest-rated ones, charge a PCI non-compliance fee. However, the better providers will usually notify you that your account is out of compliance and give you a grace period (typically around 90 days) to correct the situation before they begin to assess a penalty.
We’d also like to point out that, despite numerous merchant complaints to the contrary, there are no truly “hidden” fees when it comes to merchant accounts. Any fee you could potentially be liable for will be spelled out somewhere in the documents that make up your merchant account contract. It’s your responsibility to review those documents thoroughly before you sign up to avoid unpleasant surprises later on. Yes, we know that wading through pages and pages of fine print is no fun, but it’s imperative that you do it anyway to protect yourself from being taken advantage of by your provider.
For more information on merchant account fees, please see our article, The Complete Guide to Credit Card Processing Rates & Fees.
5. Lengthy Contracts & Expensive Early Termination Fees
From a merchant’s perspective, the best contract arrangement for a merchant account is month-to-month billing with no early termination fee (ETF). You’re free to leave whenever you want, and with no penalty. This keeps providers on their toes, encouraging them to only charge you reasonable fees for their services and to offer top-notch customer service and support.
Unfortunately, merchants don’t get to write the contracts – merchant account providers do. It’s in their best interest to make it as difficult as possible for you to drop them in favor of a competitor, and they’ve adopted some very shady practices over the years to keep their customers from leaving. Today, the industry standard is typically a long-term contract with a three-year initial period. This contract will also include an automatic renewal clause that will extend your contract for one-year periods after the initial term has expired. In effect, your contract continues indefinitely, with only a narrow window of time at the end of the current contract period where you can close your account without incurring a penalty. Early termination fees are highly variable, but typically run around $300-500. In the worst cases, your contract might also include a liquidated damages clause that could potentially set you back thousands of dollars for closing your account.
We’ll be blunt: Lengthy contract terms and expensive termination fees aren’t so much a reason to switch providers as they are a reason to avoid signing up with a provider in the first place. You should always review your contract before you sign up, and if it includes these terms, you should negotiate a waiver of the early termination fee at the very least. However, we also realize that many sales agents will fail to disclose or even outright lie to you about your contract terms. If you discover that you’re locked into a long-term contract after you’ve already signed on the dotted line, it’s time to think about switching providers. Review your contract to find out what requirements your provider imposes for closing your account, and follow them to the letter. You’ll want to time this so that your account closes at the very end of your current term, and before the automatic renewal clause goes into effect. It’s tricky, but it can be done – and it will save you from having to pay an expensive early termination fee.
Long-term contracts are extremely unpopular among merchants, and today many of the reputable providers in the industry will offer you a true month-to-month contract. You’ll typically have to provide 30 days’ notice to coincide with your billing cycle, but you won’t be assessed a penalty for leaving.
6. Poor Customer Service & Support
Few merchants consider the importance of customer service and support until they need to use it. Unfortunately, the processing industry is notorious for providing poor support to merchants after they’ve signed up for an account. We’ve seen literally hundreds of complaints from merchants alleging unhelpful and even rude treatment from their providers’ customer support division. If you have a similar experience, it’s a good reason by itself to consider switching to a different provider.
Although the “industry standard” for customer service is pretty poor in the processing industry, there are providers out there who offer high-quality support. Things to look for include 24/7 telephone support, a live chat option, and the availability of a dedicated account manager who will be your point of contact for support issues. You’ll also want to research a provider’s reputation for customer service online before signing up. The BBB is an excellent resource for this type of information, as well as other consumer protection sites such as Ripoff Report and TrustPilot. We also analyze the quality of a company’s customer support in our individual provider reviews, so check those out as well.
How To Switch Payment Processors
If you’ve read this far and realized that you’re experiencing one or more of the problems we’ve identified above, you might want to seriously consider changing providers. You might also wonder how you go about doing that, especially if you want to avoid getting hit with an expensive penalty for leaving your current provider. Here’s a brief overview of what you’ll need to do:
- Find a better provider. This might be easier said than done, but our Merchant Account Comparison Chart, which showcases the best providers that we’ve found, is a good place to start. You’ll also want to obtain a quote from any provider you’re considering and compare it to what you’re currently paying.
- Review the contract with your current provider to determine how to close your account. As we’ve noted above, providers give precise instructions in their contracts for account closure, and you’ll need to follow them to the letter. This usually involves completing a form that’s only available from your provider and submitting it within the required notice period specified in the contract.
- Return any leased equipment or “free” terminals supplied by your current provider. If you made the mistake of leasing equipment, be aware that you’ll almost certainly be charged a lump sum to cover all the remaining monthly lease payments on your leasing contract.
- Sign up with your new provider and have any equipment you own re-programmed to work with their network.
Note that you might need to juggle the order of these steps to prevent being without a merchant account or a means of accepting debit/credit card payments for a significant amount of time. Having Square (see our review) as a backup provider can be a good way to ensure that you can still accept card payments during the transition to your new provider.
As we’ve outlined above, there are many reasons why you might want to consider switching to a different provider. While equipment compatibility issues might be a problem for some, for most merchants the need to switch simply comes down to the fact that you’re paying too much for processing services and are locked in a long-term contract.
The decision to switch processors is never an easy one, and we encourage you to carefully evaluate what you’re doing before committing yourself to a change in vendors. Overpriced equipment leases, early termination fees, and liquidated damages clauses can cost you hundreds – or even thousands – of dollars if you aren’t careful. You’ll want to review your contract documents and thoroughly research a new provider before making a final decision.
You’ll also want to make sure you pick a top-notch provider before making the switch. Otherwise, you’ll merely end up going through the whole process again sometime later. For a side-by-side comparison of the best providers we’ve reviewed, please see our Merchant Account Comparison Chart.
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