Paper or plastic not just for groceries anymore

Claude Solnik, The Daily Record Newswire

Lawyers, accountants and other professionals now have something in common with the liquor store on the corner.

Although some firms, particularly larger ones, have long accepted payments via credit cards, many professionals have refused, until now. These days, more clients are putting their attorney retainers and closing costs on plastic, as lawyers and accountants choose convenience and quicker payments over a stigma that long separated professional services from retail and restaurants.

"For years, it was a stigma," said Glenn Franklin, managing partner at Garden City law firm Franklin Gringer & Cohen. "People said they were 'professionals' and they don't take credit cards."

But at firms like his, which recently began accepting payments via credit and debit cards, that's changed, Franklin added.

"I think the stigma's gone," he said. "You try to do what clients are most comfortable with."

Lawrence Offsey, an accountant in Deer Park and Manhattan, said he once thought it was demeaning for professional-service providers to accept credit cards. But he was spending too much time collecting fees, the accountant noted, and when he factored in the convenience credit card payments meant for clients, refusing plastic became the bigger problem.

Bigger, even, than the additional cost the roughly 2.5-percent service fee charged by credit providers like Visa and MasterCard per transaction. Getting paid faster and wasting less time chasing penurious clients was worth even that, according to Offsey.

"Yes, it costs a little money," he said. "But I don't have to send out dunning letters and keep track of the accounts."

The recession also accelerated the push to plastic, as professionals sought payments sometimes big ones from clients with "not as much cash flow as in past years," Offsey noted.

And there's another reason clients like paying for their professional services with plastic: They rack up the points and mileage.

"They can turn those in for gift cards or cash back," said Kimberly Roffi, director of finance and operations at Bohemia accounting firm Cerini & Associates. "People are taking opportunities to pay the bill and earn points."

Offsey recalled one client who basically ignored a large bill for about a year, until the accountant started accepting credit cards.

"When I offered a credit card, they jumped at the opportunity," Offsey said. "They find it easier to charge."

One ironic twist in the new acceptance of plastic across the professional realms is a reversal of the old stigma: As expectations change, old-school types who still refuse to accept credit and debit card payments are the ones who stand out.

"It's the age we live in," Franklin said.

Enough professionals are now accepting plastic payments for financial-services companies to cater to the trend. Advantage Payroll Services in Freeport earlier this year launched Matchpoint Payment Solutions, a merchant-service provider that according to owner Rob Basso is focused on professionals who accept plastic.

Small and medium-sized accounting and law firms can easily have hundreds of clients, Basso noted, particularly firms involved in real estate closings and those busy businesses needed a "cleaner, easier and faster way" to get paid.

"Instead of referring it to someone, we decided to open our own entity," Basso said, noting plastic payments for professional services are routinely processed within 24 hours a clear advantage over waiting up to 60 days for a client to cut a check.

Many professional-service firms find the allure of quicker payments enticing probably the biggest reason professionals are opting for plastic over paper. Cerini & Associates has even installed a "Pay My Bill" option on its website, linking directly to the firm's PayPal account, where credit cards are gratefully accepted.

Managing Partner Ken Cerini said the click-and-pay option is meant to "simplify the process" for clients, but Roffi, his finance and operations director, noted an even bigger advantage to accepting electronic payments.

"It helps us from a cash flow perspective," Roffi said.

Published: Wed, Oct 08, 2014