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Worries about new payments tech are very old

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When reading through old articles about initial EFT processes, I was struck by how many of the same arguments exist today against switching entirely to electronic procedures.

The transition from telegraphic payment methods to EFT is somewhat obscured. The first mentions of direct deposit appeared in 1974, just over 100 years after the first wire payments transmitted via telegraph. Newspaper ads like this one in Florida’s Ocala Star-Banner promoted services for “Direct Deposit for Social Security,” which deposited Social Security checks from the government to individuals.

Even EFT payments initially met with some trepidation. In a 1976 article in the Ocala Star-Banner entitled “Computer Money System… Would You Bank On It?”, Louise Cook writes that the banks favored electronic means in order to limit the expensive manual paperwork they had to maintain.

In Cook’s article, she broke down the cost for banks to maintain physical processes at the time. Banks were processing around 27 billion checks annually for 32 cents a check ($1.45 in 2019). They stressed that EFT was crucial to sustaining their businesses.

A separate 1977 article by Sylvia Porter in The Southeast Missourian entitled “Checkless society,” discussed her concerns about EFT payments. Some of the concerns are very dated.

For example, Porter argued that disputes over electronic transactions at restaurants would require lawsuits to resolve. These days, banks frequently handle disputes on behalf of their clients and refund them up front. Other arguments, such as the value of float for companies, remain valid today and are resolved by fintechs.

It’s a new century, and electronic payment options are already aging—wire transfers are almost 150 years old! Yet companies still struggle to get fully automated processes off the ground. Where is the disconnect?

There are several possible contributors, which include:

Perceived cost. Sending funds electronically is cheaper than ever, but checks now cost around $3.00 each. This equates to roughly 65 cents in 1976—a 106% increase from the original 32 cents (without even accounting for inflation). Despite the reduced cost of electronic payments, the transition, training, and scaling concerns are enough to make most companies too nervous to act. Payment solution providers ease this concern by offering fast implementation, logical user interfaces, and skilled support teams.

Smaller vendors still ask for checks. hecks won’t become obsolete until companies stop requesting them, which is unlikely—at least for now. Many smaller companies typically run their businesses on familiar, outdated processes. Vendors know everyone at their bank, and frequently pay their employees through paper processes. Even so, their business choices don’t need to affect the way your company handles AP.

Security concerns. Payment fraud instances are more common than ever. Handing some control to a payment partner can be intimidating, especially if you’re not sure that partner is taking fully protective measures for your company. During the research process, be sure to ask prospective payment solution providers whether they will cover you for any issues that occur.

What can we learn by looking back? Aside from gaining a healthy appreciation for our roots, reflection offers a great perspective on the future of modern AP processes. It highlights the fact that we haven’t changed all that much. Rather than introduce new concepts these past 150 years, we have refined and modernized existing operations.

If you’re researching ways to economize your back-office processes, but all the new-fangled technology sets you on edge, take heart! You may be surprised at how familiar this new technology feels because it isn’t really new at all—it’s evolved.

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