Payment automation – the basics: A starter guide for businesses

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  1. Introduction
  2. How do automated payments work?
  3. Types of automated payment services
  4. Automated payment benefits
  5. Common misconceptions about automated payments
    1. Misconception: Automated payments arent secure.
    2. Misconception: Setting up automated payments is too complicated.
    3. Misconception: Automated payments mean losing control over finances.
    4. Misconception: Automated payments are only for large businesses.
    5. Misconception: Customers are reluctant to adopt automated payments.
    6. Misconception: Automated payments lead to more errors.
    7. Misconception: Its difficult to resolve issues with automated payments.
    8. Misconception: Automated payments are impersonal.
  6. How to set up automated payments for your business
    1. Set up an account
    2. Integrate Stripe with your business
    3. Implement Stripes API for automated payments
    4. Test the payment process
    5. Go live
    6. Monitor and update
    7. Customer communication
  7. How to choose an automated payment provider
  8. Automated payment security measures
  9. The future of automated payments

Automated payments, also known as automatic payments or autopay, are financial arrangements that transfer payments automatically from the payer's account to the payee's account on agreed-upon dates or intervals. Automated payments remove the need for manual intervention each time a payment is due. They're popular for recurring bills or subscriptions in which the amount and frequency of payments are typically pre-determined.

Businesses often adopt automated payment systems to simplify their financial transactions and reduce the administrative burden associated with payment processing. According to a 2024 report, nearly 44% of medium-sized businesses have automated 1 or 2 accounts payable (AP) or accounts receivable (AR) tasks, while 15% have automated 3 or more – and 5% are fully automated. Automated payment systems facilitate timely payments and create a steady and predictable cash flow. They can also help to maintain good relationships with vendors and improve the business's creditworthiness. For the payer, automated payments can offer convenience and peace of mind, eliminating the need to remember and execute separate transactions for each billing cycle.

Below, we'll cover what businesses should know about payment automation, including how it works, how to choose the right provider and common misconceptions.

What's in this article?

  • How do automated payments work?
  • Types of automated payment services
  • Automated payment benefits
  • Common misconceptions about automated payments
  • How to set up automated payments for your business
  • How to choose an automated payment provider
  • Automated payment security measures
  • The future of automated payments

How do automated payments work?

Automated payments establish a digital link between a business's payment system and its customers' bank accounts or credit cards. Funds are transferred automatically at scheduled intervals, ensuring that payments are received on time with no manual input required.

Here's a high-level overview of the process:

  • Authorisation: The customer must grant permission for funds to be withdrawn automatically and must provide their bank account or credit card details to complete the transaction.

  • Scheduling: Once authorisation has been obtained, the business sets up the agreed-upon payment schedule.

  • Payment initiation: On the scheduled payment date, the automated payment system initiates a request to transfer the specified amount from the customer's account to the business's account. This is usually facilitated by an intermediary, such as a bank or a payment processor.

  • Transaction processing: The payment processor verifies the details of the requested transaction, confirms that the customer's account has sufficient funds and then processes the payment. The funds are transferred from the customer's account to the business's account. If it's a bank transfer, it may pass through a particular network, such as Nacha for ACH payments. If it's a credit card payment, it will be processed through the credit card networks.

  • Confirmation and reconciliation: Once the payment has been processed, the business and the customer receive confirmation. The business must then reconcile the payment received with its accounts receivable.

  • Payment failures: If a payment fails (because of reasons such as insufficient funds or expired payment details), the system can notify the business and the customer. The business can take steps to resolve the issue, such as by getting in touch with the customer for updated payment information.

For businesses, automated payments reduce the manual effort involved in chasing down payments, decrease the delay in receiving funds and provide a more predictable revenue stream. For customers, they offer convenience and the assurance that payments will be made on time, which can help customers avoid late fees or service interruptions.

Types of automated payment services

Automated payment services come in a variety of forms, each serving different needs and scenarios for businesses and their customers. Here's an overview of some common types of automated payment services:

  • Direct debit: This service lets businesses withdraw funds from customers' bank accounts. It's widely used for recurring payments, such as subscriptions or monthly bills. In the US, direct debits are commonly facilitated through ACH transfers.

  • Recurring credit card payments: Businesses can set up automatic charges to a customer's credit card for ongoing services or subscriptions. This method is popular thanks to its convenience, but typically involves higher transaction fees than a direct debit.

  • Electronic funds transfer (EFT): This category includes different types of digital money transfers, including direct debits, electronic transfers and online bill payments. EFTs can be used for one-off and recurring payments.

  • Digital wallets: Some services, such as PayPal, Apple Pay and Google Pay, can also process recurring payments. This method creates a simplified payment process and offers improved security features.

  • Standing orders: Similar to direct debits, standing orders are instructions that the customer gives to their bank to pay a fixed amount to a business at regular intervals. Unlike with direct debits, the amount and schedule are fixed and cannot be changed by the payee.

  • Online payment gateways: These platforms can be integrated with a business's website or application, and can process automated payments via a variety of methods, including credit cards, bank transfers and digital wallets.

  • Electronic transfers: For international transactions or large business-to-business (B2B) payments, businesses often use automated electronic transfers.

  • SMS payments: Some businesses use automated SMS payment systems, in which customers can authorise payments via text message. This method is particularly useful for microtransactions or for customers who prefer mobile-centric payment solutions.

Automated payment benefits

  • Financial optimisation: Automated payments enhance working capital and liquidity management. By maintaining a predictable payment inflow, businesses can improve their short-term investment strategies, reducing idle cash and growing their returns on available capital.

  • Smart resource allocation: The reduction in manual payment processing tasks frees up valuable resources that businesses can then redirect towards key initiatives, such as innovation, customer acquisition and market expansion.

  • Data-driven insights: Automated payment systems generate a wealth of data on customer payment behaviours and preferences. Analysing this data can provide businesses with insights into market trends, customer lifecycle value and potential areas for service improvement or new product offerings.

  • Operational resilience: By automating payments, businesses reduce their exposure to human error and increase their operational resilience. Automated systems can manage repetitive tasks with greater accuracy, reducing the risk of errors that can lead to financial loss or reputational damage.

  • Compliance and security: Automated payment systems are designed to comply with various regulatory standards and security protocols. This helps businesses to reduce their compliance burden and improve the security of their payment processes, thus mitigating the risks associated with data breaches and fraud.

  • Customer retention and acquisition: Automated payment options can help with customer retention and acquisition. For many customers, the ease and reliability of payment processes are key factors in their decision to continue using a service or to choose one provider over another.

  • Global reach and accessibility: Automated payment processes help businesses with the complexity of handling diverse currencies and payment regulations when expanding into international markets.

Common misconceptions about automated payments

Misconception: Automated payments aren't secure.

  • Reality: Automated payments are often more secure than traditional payment methods. They use a variety of security measures, including encryption, tokenisation and compliance with standards, such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), to protect against fraud and breaches.

Misconception: Setting up automated payments is too complicated.

  • Reality: Although setup does require a certain level of initial effort, it's not complicated, especially with platforms such as Stripe. These services provide step-by-step guidance and once setup has been completed, the system simplifies ongoing payment management.

Misconception: Automated payments mean losing control over finances.

  • Reality: This is a common concern, but the truth is that businesses and customers do retain control over automated payments. They can set parameters and receive notifications, as well as adjust or cancel payments as needed.

Misconception: Automated payments are only for large businesses.

  • Reality: Automated payments are flexible and can benefit businesses of all sizes. By reducing the administrative burden, automated payments offer an intelligent choice even for small enterprises.

Misconception: Customers are reluctant to adopt automated payments.

  • Reality: Although some customers may have reservations, many appreciate the convenience and reliability of automated payments. Transparent communication about the security and advantages of automated payments can help to increase adoption rates.

Misconception: Automated payments lead to more errors.

  • Reality: Automated payments can reduce the likelihood of errors, especially those associated with manual processing, such as mistakes with data entry.

Misconception: It's difficult to resolve issues with automated payments.

  • Reality: As with any system, issues can arise, but automated payment platforms often have strong support structures in place. The digital nature of these transactions also makes them easier to track when addressing discrepancies or concerns.

Misconception: Automated payments are impersonal.

  • Reality: Some businesses worry that automating payments removes a personal touch from customer interactions. In fact, automation can free up resources for businesses to focus more on personalised service and customer engagement.

How to set up automated payments for your business

Setting up automated payments for your business involves a series of steps, which will vary depending on which payment provider you work with. The process of setting up automated payments with Stripe is outlined below.

Set up an account

  • Sign up for a Stripe account by providing your business details, verifying your identity and entering your bank account information for fund transfers.

  • Explore Stripe's Dashboard to familiarise yourself with its features and settings.

Integrate Stripe with your business

  • Decide on an integration method. Stripe offers a variety of options, including pre-built checkout pages, invoicing solutions and customisable application programming interfaces (APIs) for a more tailored integration.

  • If your technological capabilities are low, consider using Stripe's pre-built solutions. Alternatively, you could consult either a developer or a Stripe integration partner.

Implement Stripe's API for automated payments

  • Use Stripe's API libraries (available in multiple programming languages) to integrate automated payment processing into your website or app.

  • For recurring payments, set up Stripe Billing. Create products and prices in your Stripe Dashboard, then use the API to create subscriptions for your customers.

Test the payment process

  • Use Stripe's test environment to simulate transactions and confirm that the payment flow works as expected.

  • Test different scenarios, including successful payments, failed payment attempts and customer subscription cancellations to check whether your system handles these cases appropriately.

Go live

  • Once you're confident in the setup, switch from Stripe's test mode to live mode.

  • Perform a few real transactions to confirm that everything works correctly in the live environment.

Monitor and update

  • Monitor transactions and payments through the Stripe Dashboard on a regular basis.

  • Stay up to date with any changes to Stripe's API or new features that could benefit your business.

Customer communication

  • Inform your customers about the new payment system, explaining how it works and how it benefits them.

  • Provide instructions on how customers can manage their payment methods and subscriptions.

How to choose an automated payment provider

Choosing an automated payment provider requires a nuanced understanding of your business's needs, the complexity of the payment landscape and the trajectory of your operations. Here's a quick rundown of what you need to consider when selecting an automated payment provider:

  • Integration capabilities: Look for a provider with APIs that would be easy to integrate into your systems, whether that's your customer relationship management (CRM) setup, accounting software or e-commerce platform. The goal is to ensure that the payment process is not a standalone mechanism, but an integrated piece of your business workflow.

  • Global payment reach and currency support: If your business operates internationally or has plans to expand, consider a provider that supports a wide range of currencies and payment methods that are popular in your target markets. The ability to process local payment types can greatly affect your market penetration and levels of customer satisfaction.

  • Advanced fraud detection and risk management: Looking beyond basic security measures, the right provider should have advanced fraud detection tools that use machine learning and real-time analytics to identify and mitigate potential threats, thus securing your transactions and customer data.

  • Customisable payment experiences: The ability to customise payment gateways and processes can enhance your brand experience. Look for providers that have flexibility in creating a user interface that reflects your brand's aesthetic and user experience values.

  • Scalability and reliability: As your business grows, your payment system should be able to scale accordingly. Evaluate the provider's infrastructure and track record for handling high transaction volumes. They should be able to support your growth without compromising on performance or uptime.

  • Compliance and security standards: Ensure that the provider adheres to industry compliance standards, such as the PCI DSS, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and any other relevant regulations in your industry. This protects your business against legal and financial risks, and reinforces trust with your customers.

  • Data insights and analytics: A provider with strong analytics and reporting tools can offer valuable insights into your sales trends, customer behaviour and payment efficiency. This data can help to inform business decisions and improve your payment processes.

  • Cost-effectiveness and fee transparency: Although cost should not be the sole deciding factor, understanding the fee structure is important. Look for transparent pricing and consider how the costs align with the features and value provided.

  • Expert support and community: Access to knowledgeable support is key, especially when dealing with complex payment issues. A provider with a strong community or environment can provide additional resources, plugins and integrations that can boost your payment capabilities.

  • Future-proofing: The payment industry is evolving constantly, so choose a provider that is proactive about integrating new technologies (such as cryptocurrency or mobile payments) and can position your business at the forefront of payment innovations.

Automated payment security measures

The security measures used in automated payment processing determine whether sensitive financial information is handled safely. Here's a breakdown of how automated payment systems maintain security:

  • Encryption: Encryption converts information into a secure format that cannot be read by unauthorised users. When a payment is processed, sensitive data (such as credit card numbers) is encrypted, making it extremely difficult for hackers to intercept and decipher this information during transmission.

  • Tokenisation: Tokenisation replaces sensitive data elements, such as credit card numbers, with non-sensitive equivalents known as tokens, which have no exploitable value. If the data is intercepted, the token is useless without the key to decode it.

  • Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) and Transport Layer Security (TLS): SSL and TLS are standard security technologies which create an encrypted link between a web server and a browser, securing the data passed between them.

  • PCI DSS compliance: PCI DSS provides a set of requirements that govern how businesses that process, store or transmit credit card information must maintain a secure environment. Compliance is mandatory.

  • Fraud detection and management: Automated payment systems often include sophisticated tools that monitor transactions in real time for signs of fraud. These systems can flag unusual activity, such as an abnormally large transaction or a sudden change in a user's purchasing behaviour, and then prompt further review or immediate action.

  • Authentication and authorisation: These processes verify that the person initiating a transaction or accessing information is who they claim to be. For example, two-factor authentication (2FA) adds a layer of security by requiring users to provide two authentication factors to verify themselves.

  • Regular security audits: Continuous monitoring and regular audits of payment systems help to identify and rectify potential security vulnerabilities, maintaining the integrity of the payment processing infrastructure.

The future of automated payments

The future of automated payments will be driven by advancements in technology, changing customer expectations and a dynamic regulatory landscape. Here's what we can anticipate from automated payment technology:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: AI and machine learning will further refine automated payment mechanisms. Expect smarter fraud detection systems that can learn and adapt over time, reducing false positives and identifying new fraud patterns. AI could also personalise payment experiences, offering recommendations or tailored payment options based on user behaviour.

  • Blockchain and cryptocurrency: Blockchain technology promises to revolutionise automated payments with enhanced security, transparency and reduced costs, particularly for cross-border transactions. As cryptocurrencies gain mainstream acceptance, we'll see more businesses integrating crypto payment options, driven by demand for lower fees, faster settlement times and higher levels of privacy.

  • Biometric authentication: Biometric authentication methods, such as fingerprint scanning, facial recognition and voice authentication, will become more prevalent in verifying transactions. This could reduce fraud drastically and make payments simpler.

  • Contactless and mobile payments: The rise of contactless payments, driven by near-field communication (NFC) technology, will continue. Digital wallets and wearables will become more common as these types of payment methods start to take over a larger part of the automated payments scene.

  • The Internet of Things (IoT) and payments convergence: The IoT will enable a wider array of devices to initiate and process payments. Imagine your car paying for its fuel or your fridge ordering and paying for food. This convergence will open up new avenues for automated payments that are embedded directly into daily life.

  • Voice-activated payments: With the proliferation of smart speakers and voice-assisted devices, voice-activated payments are becoming increasingly feasible and could transform how customers interact with online commerce, making transactions as simple as saying a command.

  • Evolving regulations: As payment technologies advance, regulatory frameworks will evolve to address emerging risks and to protect customers. Expect tighter regulations surrounding data privacy, security and customer consent, pushing payment providers to adopt more stringent compliance measures.

  • Cross-platform payment integration: Future payment systems will probably have more cohesive cross-platform integrations, allowing users to switch between devices and payment methods easily, without compromising on security or user experience.

  • Smart contracts: The use of smart contracts in blockchain networks will automate and enforce the terms of an agreement based on predefined rules, reducing the need for intermediaries and lowering transaction costs. This could have a substantial effect on B2B transactions in particular.

  • Environment-driven payment experiences: Payment providers will increasingly create environments with a range of financial services that go beyond "normal" transactions, including services such as lending, insurance and investment options, which can all be accessed through a single platform.

Looking ahead, it's clear that automated payment technology will become increasingly integrated into our daily lives. Businesses and customers will need to adapt to these changes, embracing new technologies and the opportunities that they bring. Explore how Stripe powers automated payment solutions for businesses.

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