For the last 40-plus years, the nation’s little known bank transfer network, or the Automated Clearing House (ACH) system, has offered larger and more developed businesses a dependable and flexible way to initiate bank transfers and requests between nearly anyone in the United States and for a fraction of the cost of card networks. In other words, when businesses are instinctively relying on card networks like like Visa or Mastercard to build-out an integrated payments system, they might be overlooking ACH as their best option. Last year alone, ACH moved over $40 trillion dollars—out-processing card networks by nearly 5-to-1.
But working with ACH is not the same as with card networks. For starters, the 546-page operating rules and guidebook published by The Electronics Payments Association (NACHA) each year, fraud and risk support required to operate, and strong banking relationships and processes can make the benefits of ACH difficult to understand and leverage. Luckily, new third party API-based payment providers are enabling simpler access and even more capabilities, squeezing great ACH functionality into as few as four API endpoints.
Still, the situational nuances of ACH can make it difficult for a platform to leverage 100% of ACH’s value and depending on the size or needs of your platform, clean and concise API documentation can fall short of satisfying whatever your concerns or business challenge. In those instances, the “secret menu” route may be your best option.
Like an unadvertised food medley at your local diner, many robust ACH offerings can be made safely and easily available to those that ask. Here, in-house experts may be able to evaluate the compliance, technical, and support needs of your platform and activate capabilities that a carte blanche developer portal wasn't meant to provide. A more formal relationship can also provide deeper integrations and greater input on an ACH API provider’s product roadmap.
But before you pick up the phone, here are three quick ways to make the most out of your “secret menu” discussions:
How Well do you Play with Others?
Between your own proprietary systems and commercial platforms (e.g. marketing, invoicing, etc.), you know how to maximize the value of your platform for your customers. As a matter of fact, choosing which components of your business or platform to outsource, automate, or control could be what sets you apart from the competition. This is one of the major benefits of APIs: the ability to compliment existing services and amplify their value to you and your users.
But for larger platforms with complex business, risk, or funds transfer models, standing up an integrated payments system isn’t like getting a domain at GoDaddy. Minimizing the influence an outside provider has on your process, while satisfying your regulatory obligations, should be a priority.
- Define the business need(s): what are you trying to achieve here? Cost savings to you or the customer? End-user conversion? Increased sales? Make a list and try to prioritize them for your discussions.
- Outline relevant processes, identify proprietary systems or other vendors that may be affected.
- Visit the provider’s API documentation and study the methods that are available through the API’s various resources. Itemize the methods you believe you will or will not need.
- Layout your ideal payment flow and understand your “non-negotiables” or acceptance criteria of what you may want to control. While regulations may not permit certain payment flows, this will give a provider a better foundation to discuss your options, select the right solutions, or to find a creative solution outside their published API documentation.
- As you begin to understand the payment services required for your platform, don’t be afraid to mix and match different providers and solutions to meet your needs. Sometimes, it makes sense for a service to have one company do customer verification, another to collect payments, and a different one to do the payouts.
Is Product and Compliance Support Available?
“Time and again, we were told by traditional processors and banks, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ only to get an email a week later saying, ‘So, yeah, we either misunderstood you or wrongly described you to our product team.’,’” says Jackson Gates, co-founder of Sweep, a financial savings platform that uses bank transfers to automate savings for millennials. “It was like we were speaking two different languages.”
This isn’t unusual. From a technical, administrative, and operational perspective, the ACH system wasn’t designed to neatly accommodate the new business models, digital platforms, or transaction flows of the 21st century. So while your payment integration request may be 100% okie-dokie, legacy providers may not have the proper technical knowledge and expertise to understand your product, its needs, and how to allow you to innovate while still complying with the rules of these legacy systems.
- Make sure product is a part of the initial briefing, and if possible compliance too. This will mitigate communication breakdowns and delays in the process.
- Immediately ask to clarify industry jargon and acronyms.
- Use your business needs and ideal payment flows to have a candid conversation with the product and, if possible, compliance teams.
- The more acronyms (e.g. BSA, CAMS-AUDIT, etc.) behind a compliance team member’s title the better.
- Ask questions to determine the strength of the platforms banking partnership. Look for platforms with solid and credible track records.
- “Support” should feel like another word for “partner.” If you don’t get that feeling, be wary.
What are the All-in Costs and how Long is Integration?
Leveraging the nation’s underlying payment infrastructure is no small task. While simple API documentation make the nation’s infrastructure appear, well, simple, leveraging it in a customized fashion may not be. Going off-script may come with additional responsibilities and costs for platforms: compliance requirements, like Know Your Customer (KYC), Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctions (OFAC), and Bank Secrecy Act (BSA), or operational support, like reject handling, investigations, and customer service. Choosing the right provider can mean that some of these costs are lessened, or even removed.
Unfortunately, providers aren’t always upfront about the services required per your custom integration. While this may make for an attractive price tag, it can leave you in a precarious position legally, extend your time to market, and create unforeseen support costs down the road.
- After the second or third meeting, providers should be able to identify and outline the necessary support systems and processes required for your custom implementation.
- Be a smart shopper. Once you’ve identified your platform’s responsibilities, push potential partners to provide competitive components or services. These may be more cost-effective, offer more control, or provide greater functionality. Remember, you’re not just buying transfers, but the customer support, help with compliance, and inside expertise needed to leverage a payment system.
- Run cost projections and models. Today’s platforms can scale fast, quickly turning you upside down on your purchase agreement. Take the time to go through your product roadmap and growth projections to understand which pricing model is right for you. Typically, this looks like either a flat fixed monthly fee or per transaction fee.
- Be mentally prepared for the purchase process, compliance reviews, and pricing negotiations custom implementations to take longer than the integration. Don’t worry, it’s worth it.