In this economy, chasing receivables can become a full-time job. Customers may need float what they owe you -- without asking for the favor. Meanwhile, you're following sales leads or serving customers from wherever you are: home, Starbucks, the cleaners -- sometimes even from the office. If your books can go mobile, you may be less likely to build a pile of undelivered invoices and unsent reminders. If you can offer customers a link for paying electronically, you stand a better chance of getting paid sooner.
Online billing, including its new smart phone apps, can help you to match your free moments to unfinished business. You may even have time for friends and family.
Three trends are driving the popularity of online billing solutions:
- The evolution of web browsers that can do nearly everything that desktop software can.
- The growing acceptance of "cloud computing" -- outsourcing data processing, storage, security, and upgrades to a third party.
- The reliability of e-payments systems, eliminating the need for killing trees, stuffing envelopes, and applying stamps.
The current generation of online billing options is more flexible and versatile than ever. Some common elements are generally shared by these online billing products:
- Security: These websites use the same security as financial institutions and take similar precautions, such as data storage in multiple physical locations.
- Payment plans: Instead of paying a large upfront price, as one would for desktop software, you pay a month-to-month amount, with no long-term contract. Most services offer 30 to 60 days free or a 30-day money-back guarantee.
- Support: Plans include various degrees of support, usually by email, online forums, and phone support during business hours.
- Mobility: Since your data resides online, bookkeeping goes wherever you are -- depending on your plan, you, your accountant, and your employees are free to log in from anywhere, using any modern browser, on any kind of computer or smart phone.
- Branding: Your invoices can be branded with your logo and color scheme.
Here is a look at the range of options for online receivables billing currently on the market. This roundup surveys QuickBooks Online, FreshBooks, AcceptPay, and PayPal, with nods to Outright and Xero.
QuickBooks Online - Intuit Inc.
Corporations, limited liability companies, or sole proprietors seeking a well-rounded online solution, particularly those currently using QuickBooks desktop software.
The user interface will be familiar to users of Intuit products, with dropdown menus for selecting customer and product data loaded into the system. Invoices are customizable with your logo and color scheme. Current QuickBooks users can import data into the Essentials and Plus versions, although some desktop features, such as categories for expenses, aren't supported. Users can import customer lists from Excel, Gmail, and Outlook.
For payment processing, QuickBooks offers its own Merchant Account service for MasterCard and Visa, at $19.95/month and 2.44% plus $.27 per transaction, after a $59.95 setup. With this optional service, invoices can be emailed with links for online payment.
Going beyond invoicing, the QuickBooks Online Essentials and Plus versions offer online banking integration, sales and expense tracking, bill tracking, project estimates, time tracking, budgeting, planning, and other functions. Derived from QuickBooks' category-leading desktop software, the online version resides on the same secure servers that run Intuit's TurboTax online products.
Like PayPal, described below, QuickBooks has mobile versions for iPhone, Blackberry, and Android devices. You can use its mobile apps to update not only receivables but payables, bank balances, customer contact details, and other features.
QuickBooks provides a good case for comparing the desktop and online pricing. The desktop QuickBooks Pro edition is $199, plus $299 for support. Meanwhile, at $24.95 per month, QuickBooks Online Essentials costs $299.40 per year -- and that includes phone, email, and chat support, plus the security and benefits of cloud computing, including simultaneous log-ins and mobile access.
FreshBooks - 2ndSite Inc.
Those seeking a streamlined, less-elaborate alternative to QuickBooks, particularly early-stage companies seeking a free solution and upgrading from using Excel or Word for invoicing.
FreshBooks specializes in invoicing and handles automatic billing, multiple currencies, and reminder scheduling. Although it's not a full-blown online accounting solution such as QuickBooks Online, FreshBooks has some innovative features. For example, customers can log into an account page within FreshBooks to view their invoice history and make a payment. What's more, subcontractors can log in to track their time, making it easier to bill your clients. Like QuickBooks, it has a clean user interface, offering dropdown menus for selecting customer and product records you've created.
In contrast to the solitary payment gateway supported by QuickBooks Online, described above, the FreshBooks payment processing can be integrated with PayPal, Authorize.Net, LANDMARK Merchant Solutions, iTransact, Linkpoint, PSiGate, 2Checkout.com, or Google Checkout (merchant and processing fees apply). For example, invoices sent by email can link directly to an online payment page that's prepopulated with the customer's address and invoice information. One optional service is to snail-mail invoices at $1.79 per stamped envelope, or less, depending on volume.
The Minibooks iPhone app offers mobile lets you update FreshBooks with invoices, estimates, expenses, time tracking, and client details. Unlike QuickBooks and PayPal, apps for Android and Blackberry haven't been released.
AcceptPay - American Express Co.
Companies seeking only stand-alone invoicing and processing or an add-on electronic payment tool for services like the desktop version of QuickBooks. Subscribing to AcceptPay alone may be attractive to those who aren't ready to manage payables, expenses, time-keeping, and other bookkeeping data online. Whether used as a stand-alone service or integrated with another online billing application, electronic payment services like AcceptPay may encourage faster collections since remittance is one click away.
AcceptPay focuses on invoice delivery and payment processing, not bookkeeping. Although AcceptPay is from American Express, payments by Visa, MasterCard, Discover, eCheck, or ACH are also accepted. You can create an invoice with an online payment button and email it to customers. Alternatively, you can add a link on your website so customers can fill out an AcceptPay payment form, online. The system integrates with the desktop version of QuickBooks or serves as an endpoint for your company's homegrown, and even manual, systems.
AcceptPay has a monthly $20 fee, unlike PayPal, but it has added features, such as the ability to schedule recurring billing and to email credit-card expiration notices. Unlike other billing services, unlimited employee user profiles are supported, and each can be assigned a unique security profile.
Currently, AcceptPay has no smart phone apps, but it can be accessed through web browsers. Phone support is offered seven days per week (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern, or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends); e-mail support is also available.
Online Invoicing from PayPal - PayPal Inc.
As with AcceptPay, PayPal's Online Invoicing may be best for entrepreneurs who don't want to move all of their bookkeeping online, but who want to provide customers with the convenience of paying by credit card.
With Online Invoicing from PayPal, you can create invoices and email them with a button for credit card, eCheck, or ACH payments. Customers do not need a PayPal account. Quicken and QuickBooks desktop users can integrate the payment button into their existing invoices.
Payments are received within a few minutes after a customer pays, and those funds can be used to make online PayPal purchases, ATM withdrawals, or purchases with PayPal's debit card. Transferring the funds to your bank will require two to three days. You can review payments online, and each month, PayPal sends a summary of transactions.
PayPal, owned by eBay Inc., can be considered the granddaddy of online payment systems. The Online Invoicing services is complemented by PayPal's ecommerce shopping cart services, which allow websites to collect online payments.
Currently, Online Invoicing from PayPal has no smart phone apps, but it can be accessed through web browsers. Support is offered by phone (4 a.m. to 10 p.m. Pacific weekdays, 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekends), email, virtual assistant, online forum, and (for companies with monthly sales exceeding $50,000 per month) dedicated account managers.
There are many other services worth consideration (please mention your favorite in the comments). For example: Outright -- a free service focused on Schedule C sole proprietors, integrated with PayPal; and Xero of New Zealand -- with plans ranging from $19 to $39 per month, this service accepts multiple currencies and seems poised for global expansion. It integrates with PayPal and FreshBooks.