If you own a small business, you probably know first-hand the increasing importance of being able to accept debit and credit card payments.

Because businesses have unique payment needs — from the mix of retail, online and mobile purchase volume to the size of an average payment — we advise businesses to request proposals from a variety of payment processing services to see how they compare across five criteria: rate, access to your money, support/service, contract terms, and equipment and setup costs.

Fees are assessed in a variety of ways, so ask for a complimentary pricing analysis based either on a recent statement from your current payment processing service or on your current monthly transaction patterns. The analysis should include a start-to-finish charge overview from transaction gateway charges to per transaction fees.

Be sure to ask if rates are based on the dollar amount of the transaction, the type of card used (i.e., Visa, rewards program credit cards, corporate credit cards) or whether the transaction was in-person, online or over the phone. You’ll also want to know if there are additional per-transaction, statement, monthly or regulatory fees.

Having your business’ sales transactions quickly posted to your bank account is especially important for small businesses. So it’s important to know how long it takes for funds to be received, if it will vary based on the type of payment method your customer used, and how your payment processor deposits funds into your account.

In the real world, things occasionally go wrong. In your comparison, ask about the support provided by the payment processor. Before there are equipment or settlement-of-funds problems, you’ll want to understand if support is available 24/7 and if a local representative can provide continuity of service on any questions or concerns.

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Contract terms can vary widely between payment processing providers. Some providers require contracts, others don’t. Due to large-scale changes in the payment processing industry and rapidly changing consumer purchasing preferences, signing a long-term contract may not be advisable. As you review your options, if a contract is required with a provider, consider whether there is a cancellation and/or early contract termination fee or a “liquidated damages” termination fee, which may consist of the total estimated amount of your full contract.

And, as you consider the total cost of payment processing, don’t forget to factor in the cost of the equipment. While some providers offer the necessary card-swiping and other equipment for free, it’s also common for vendors to charge for buying/leasing equipment plus a set-up fee for your service.

While the ability to accept credit and debit card payments is practically a small-business necessity, it can definitely pay to shop wisely for your payment processing provider.

Wayne Paton is vice president for corporate and business services at Ent Federal Credit Union.