You would think my small business would be using online and mobile payment services like PayPal, right?
My 10-person company is in the technology services business too! And yet for a tech company, I'm embarrassed to admit that we're still in the Dark Ages. Particularly when it comes to cash.
Most of our invoices today still get sent by mail. Payments are normally received by check. We do accept credit cards, but only after a client manually fills out and faxes us a form. (Yes, I said fax. That's because most of my clients still fax!) I'm getting more and more embarrassed as I write this. But please understand -- my business sells to mostly small and midsized manufacturers and service firms that operate out of industrial parks near the airport or office buildings in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My clients, like me, are still part of an older generation that listens to the car radio, reads newspapers and watches TV shows on the day they actually air.
So yes, part of this is generational. But before you accuse me of being out of date, I'll not only agree with you, but also point out that it's not just me. This is what I see every day at my clients' businesses. And these are seasoned business owners who, like me, have been running their companies for more than 20 years. We understand the value of technology. I'm following the mobile payments revolution happening in retail. I ordered and paid for my last dinner without even interacting with a waitress. I know that tomorrow's point-of-sale systems will very soon detect me when I walk into a store and debit my bank account with a wink as I walk out. I watch my taxi driver swipe my credit card on his little reader and I never have to worry about Marriott forgetting my payment information.
Not only that, but PayPal is one of my clients too! I follow them and write about them and do work with them. So you'd think I'd be drinking the Kool-Aid as well, right? So why am I not part of this trend in my own business? And why aren't the hundreds of small and midsized service firms and manufacturers that my firm works with not using PayPal, or some other payment service like them?
"Basically, the entire service industry could really be better served by a payments solution that improves sales, makes paying simpler and allows their customers' lives to just be easier," admitted Brad Brodigan, a vice president and general manager at PayPal. "Service providers have a common set of pain points that are not currently met by payment providers."
For me, and most of my clients, the pain points are our customers' growing demand to pay with their credit cards, the need to better and more quickly integrate payments with our scheduling, booking and operational systems, and the desire to speed up our cash flow. We recognize this. We also respect those long-established companies like PayPal that provide these kinds of services while also taking into account the growing complexity of the back-office processing required in a secure manner that goes (as they like to call it) "beyond the swipe." But actually, there are four obstacles that stop my company and my clients from doing this today: ease, integration, internal control and cost.
PayPal makes the process as easy as possible, but it's still not easy enough. It's not their fault - it's just that there are still too many players that need to be involved besides them: the credit card processor, the bank, the bookkeeper, the webmaster, the software developer, the IT guy, all the vendors and customers who we want to do business with and all the people who have to learn the new process. Not that this won't change in the years to come, but setting up a mobile and online payment system is still a pain in the neck and ranks low on my list of the top 100 problems of the day. This is why many of my non-retail clients aren't jumping on the bandwagon too.
Integration is poor. Even Brodigan admits this. "We want to help," he told me. "We are an open infrastructure that builds a platform for the next generation of payment." So the foundation is there. But let's all agree that the mobile payment industry is focusing on retail because that's where the money and media are. Their development dollars are being funneled toward getting today's point-of-sale systems to talk to their mobile apps and readers. This same type of integration barely exists for the typical service company, other than some services that provide a basic online billing capability. This stuff is coming, but it's not close to being there yet.
For disbursements, internal control plays a part too. Maybe we're naive, but the physical act of reviewing an invoice and then signing a check is not only comforting, but gives us a sense of control over how our cash is being distributed. Most of my clients of a certain size have an approval process normally revolving around the company controller, payables and purchasing staffs that for the most part works. Changing that for some is disconcerting.
Finally, the cost is still too high. Our typical projects run anywhere from $5,000-$25,000. A plumber or HVAC firm or landscaper also has jobs that are in this range. An approximate 3 percent service fee on a $10,000 job is equivalent to six hours of labor time. It may not sound like much, but multiply that by 10 times a month and it really adds up.
I will probably move to PayPal sometime this year, if only so I can better understand the process and write about it. That way, as the inevitable approaches, I can help the rest of my non-retail clients get there. Then again, I may have more important things to do.
Besides Accounting Today, Gene Marks writes for The New York Times and Inc.com.
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