How to Take Payments Online and Over the Phone

Woman taking payments over the phone

Learn how to accept ecommerce payments, and safeguard your business against the uncertainties of COVID-19

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change”.

For British businesses, at least, Albert Einstein’s words have never been more relevant. Because things have changed, and they’ve changed fast.

Though the first confirmed UK cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) didn’t arrive until late January 2020, by the end of March the high street was unrecognisable. Shops across the country have been forced to close their doors indefinitely, but – with the population in lockdown in an attempt to stymie the virus’ spread – does this mean they’ve been robbed of their customers, too?

Well, no – because online buying and selling (ecommerce) remains as strong as ever. The postal service is continuing to function, websites are still live, and people are at home with more time than ever before – and with the same desire to shop. 

So it’s time to take Albert’s advice: to change, to adapt, and to make the smart choice for your business. 

It’s time to start accepting payments online, and over the phone, too. But how? Let’s take a look at how you can embrace ecommerce to defy COVID-19’s impact on your sales – and future-proof your business while you’re at it.

Alternatively, get straight to the good stuff with credit card processing quotes tailored to your business. Answer a few brief questions about your business’ industry and requirements (it takes about 30 seconds), and we’ll match you with hand-picked merchant account providers that’ll help you accept online payments.

Before we begin: This article focuses solely on accepting payments online, helping businesses respond to the government’s recent measures to close bricks and mortar establishments. 

For information about how to accept payments in person (with a PDQ machine and an electronic point of sale (EPOS) system), dive into the article below.

Read more: How to Take Credit Card Payments 4 Simple Steps

How to take payments online

Making an online payment with a laptop

Merchant account

First things first, any business that's looking to accept credit or debit cards (whether that’s in person, online, or over the phone) needs a merchant account

Of course, if you were accepting card payments from your physical store (i.e. at the point of sale) before COVID-19 happened, you’ll already have a merchant account. 

If this is the case, you can head straight to the section on payment gateways below.

If you’re completely new to accepting credit or debit card payments, though, you’ll need to apply for a merchant account before you can get online.

Think of a merchant account as a kind of holding pen. It’s where funds go to be settled, before they arrive in your business bank account.

Types of merchant account

Merchant accounts are either:

  • Dedicated (or traditional): This kind of merchant account exists to process your business’ transactions only. Dedicated merchant accounts offer negotiable rates and flexibility, and are ideal for businesses that process larger amounts of transactions.
  • Aggregated: This kind of merchant account is offered by providers that ‘batch’ together your transactions with those of other businesses. Ideal for small or seasonal businesses, aggregated accounts are typically easier to get approved for than their dedicated counterparts – and offer simple, flat rate pricing to boot.
  • High-risk: This kind of merchant account exists for businesses with poor credit, or those that operate in a high-risk industry such as gambling, travel, or online pharmaceuticals. If this sounds like you, we recommend checking out our list of the best high risk merchant account providers in the UK.

You can apply for a dedicated merchant account directly through an acquiring bank such as Barclays. Your other option comes in the form of third-party merchant account providers. In industry parlance, these companies are known as ISOs (Independent Service Organisations), and include suppliers such as takepayments and Clover.

As the name suggests, ISOs are independent companies that offer dedicated merchant services directly to businesses. They still work with the banks, but are generally cheaper, and offer superior customer support. 

Sure, dedicated merchant account fees can be trickier to get your head around. But in the long run, a dedicated account is a more cost-effective route for businesses – especially those that accept more than £2,000 per month in card transactions.

Alternatively, you can opt for an aggregated merchant account through a company known as a payment facilitator. Funky name, but you’ll certainly be familiar with the likes of Square, Zettle, and SumUp – their modern, mobile card readers are a staple on the counters of market stalls and micro-breweries across the country.

Payment facilitators (PayFacs) are well-suited to small businesses and sole traders. They offer straightforward, flat rate pricing, charge no monthly fees, and are typically easier to apply for (Square, for instance, doesn’t run a credit check). 

PayFacs are also called ‘all-in-one’ providers, because they give you the ability to take payments via multiple channels (online, in-store, over the telephone, by mail, and via invoicing) with the convenience of handling everything through a single supplier.

As for the application process, you’ll have to do it the only way most of us have these days… online. When that’s done, it’s time to get down to the real business – accepting payments online. To do that, you’ll need a…

Payment gateway

A payment gateway is a piece of software that authenticates and secures payments made through your website. 

A payment gateway is hosted either on your website (to help maintain a consistent customer journey) or on the website of your payment gateway provider (cheaper and PCI compliant, but potentially disruptive to your customers' user experience). Either way, it can usually be customised to fit the look and feel of your business’ colours and brand. So how do you get one?

Well, how you source your payment gateway service will depend on the type of merchant account you’ve selected. Take a look at your options below.

With a dedicated merchant account

If you’ve opted for a dedicated merchant account, a payment gateway should be available to purchase as an ‘add-on’. Most providers offer it as a service for which you’ll pay a monthly fee (typically around £20), and in return get a set amount of ‘free’ transactions (usually between 350 and 400 per month).

If you exceed your number of transactions, you’ll then be eligible for a small per transaction fee (most likely around the 10p mark).

To reiterate, most merchant account providers offer a payment gateway. But if yours, for whatever reason, doesn’t, then stress not. You can also integrate your merchant account with a payment gateway from a third-party provider

Many providers (Authorize.Net, Braintree, and Amazon Pay included) specialise in such a service. Some, such as Stripe, are customisable to the extent that they’re almost a white label solution. So, if you’re tech-savvy (or have a software engineer or two at your disposal), then this could be the best option for you.

Be warned, though – this is a more complicated solution, and will probably be pricier, too. We always recommend entrusting your credit and debit card payments to a single provider, such as takepayments or Clover.

With an aggregated merchant account

If you’ve opted for a PayFac such as Square or Zettle, accepting payments online is a fair bit easier. That’s because – as we mentioned earlier – these companies offer an ‘all-in-one’ service. It’s a payment gateway, virtual terminal, and invoicing tool, all rolled into one

All-in-one providers also help you remain PCI compliant, and also throw in a bunch of other added benefits – including fraud management, subscription billing, and customer loyalty features.

Providers such as Square also work with website builders, such as Wix. This team-up allows you to use drag-and-drop functionality to create a stunning website, then start selling through it. These providers also integrate with a range of shopping carts and ecommerce platforms, including Shopify, Etsy, and BigCommerce – allowing you to manage your sales and inventory from a single, convenient hub.

Going down this route is surprisingly affordable, too. Unlike with certain dedicated merchant accounts (where there can be hidden fees), you’ll pay only a small fee on each transaction you accept via your website. This cost will be a bit more expensive than it would be if you were accepting card payments in person (because of the higher level of data risk involved with ecommerce transactions), but it’s still minimal.

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How to take payments over the phone

Woman taking payments over the phone

Of course, you won’t only need to get on top of accepting payments online now that COVID-19 has shut down the high street. You’ll also want to explore the possibility of accepting card details remotely over the phone, or via mail order.

Here’s how.

Virtual terminal

A virtual terminal is a secure webpage that allows you to accept payments over the phone. You simply log into the page from your device, enter your customer’s card details (which you’ve received either over the phone, or via mail), and take the payment. These payments are called MOTO (Mail Order/Telephone Order) transactions.

Once chiefly the domain of freelancers, tradespeople, and food delivery businesses, MOTO payments might just be exactly what your SME needs to send sales back in the right direction. And they’re simple to accept, too – virtual terminals are basically an online version of a card machine.

Sage Pay virtual terminal

Opayo (formerly Sage Pay) offers a slick, simple example of what a good virtual terminal interface should look like

Virtual terminals can also be used to process invoices, and you can save customer card details to speed up service. Better still, they’re totally secure – virtual terminals use AVS (Address Verification Service) to authenticate the payment, and are fully PCI compliant, too – providing, that is, that you don’t leave anyone’s card details lying around on a scrap of paper in your office.

Virtual terminals – a no-brainer, right? So how do you get one?

With a dedicated merchant account

Well, as it turns out, it’s as simple as obtaining a payment gateway. A virtual terminal is available as an optional add-on with a merchant account. It’ll set you back a monthly fee, usually starting at £10, plus a small cost per transaction beyond an agreed limit of sales made through the terminal.

With an aggregated merchant account

If you opt for an all-in-one provider, a virtual terminal will be included as standard – no monthly fees or hidden costs in sight. However, you will pay a percentage-based fee for each transaction you accept through it. With Square, that’s 2.5%, while SumUp will set you back 2.95% + 25p.

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Next Steps

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”.
Albert Einstein circle

This is another Einstein quote. Like the one we referenced earlier, it also sums up the days and weeks you have ahead of you.

Because, though COVID-19 will continue to test your business, it also presents a myriad of opportunities to take a look at your existing processes – and how you can improve them. How much does your business have to gain by accepting card payments online, or over the phone? 

More sales, for example? More customers? More ways to connect people with your services, products, provisions, or pleasant diversions that might even help them through a tough time?

Plus, even if the current pandemic wasn’t happening, accepting payments online and over the phone would still make perfect business sense. So let us help you get started.

To begin, simply take a minute to answer a few short questions

We’ll ask you about your industry, and the total number of card payments you’re looking to accept per month. We’ll also ask for your postcode, so we can match you to suppliers in your area.

Once we have a sense of your requirements, we’ll match you with merchant account providers that fit the bill. They’ll then be in touch directly, with quotes tailored to the specific needs of your business, and information about your next steps towards accepting payments online and over the phone.

It’s free to complete, and you could be speaking to an expert today. Why not give it a go?

Rob Binns Expert Market
Rob Binns Senior Writer

Rob writes mainly about the payments industry, but also brings to the table industry-specific knowledge of CRM software, business loans, fulfilment, and invoice finance. When not exasperating his editor with bad puns, he can be found relaxing in a sunny (socially-distanced) corner, with a beer and a battered copy of Dostoevsky.