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More Americans than ever before are paying bills online. Smallbusinesses that make it easy for their customers to pay bills ormake purchases online will have a leg up on competitors who arestill mired in paper billing systems.

While the U.S. Postal Service probably won’t be out of workanytime soon, the number of people mailing bill payments isdwindling. The convenience and eco-friendliness of paperlessbilling and online payments are likely major draws for the growingnumber of consumers paying bills and banking online.

Since 2000, the number of U.S. households paying bills onlinesoared by 78 percent, according to Fiserv’s 2010 Consumer Billingand Payment Trends Survey. Of the approximately 95 millionhouseholds that use the Internet, 36.4 million regularly pay online when they’re billed, the survey says.

An increasing number of online bill payers are also opting toreceive online invoices, the survey shows. And online is thepreferred payment method among Generation Y customers foreverything except their mortgages, according to a 2010 JavelinResearch study.

Issuing bills and collecting payments over the Internet offers awealth of benefits to small business owners (SBOs). Customers canbe offered more options to pay their bills through both creditcards and eChecks, valuable time spent on sending and reconcilingpayments can be saved, and office supply and postage costs can becurtailed. AcceptPay from American Express OPEN (R) offers bothpayments acceptance and invoicing in a single solution. This easesthe process for the SBO, and makes paying bills easy for customerswho increasingly prefer to do business with companies thatunderstand their online preferences.

Many SBOs feel they get paid faster when they provide customers with the ability topay online, and especially by credit cards, according to a recentAmerican Express survey of small business owners. Fortunately,online tools like AcceptPay can make it easy for SBOs to generatecustomized invoices and collect payments online.

AcceptPay offers a host of features, for one all-inclusivemonthly fee. Users are able to accept customer payments using allmajor credit cards and ACH (eCheck), have payments depositeddirectly into their bank accounts and integrate their onlinebilling activities into QuickBooks, a popular accounting programamong SBOs.

AcceptPay allows business owners to accept payments online, overthe phone or in person from an unlimited number of customers.Business owners can also offer customers electronic invoicing,establish recurring billing and payment plans, and generateautomated reminders for customers with overdue bills.

While a completely paperless world is probably still a long wayoff, the era of online billing and collecting payments hasdefinitely arrived. Consumers are embracing the trend, and SBOswould benefit from joining them.