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

While the U.S. Postal Service probably won’t be out of work anytime soon, the number of people mailing bill payments is dwindling. The convenience and eco-friendliness of paperless billing and online payments are likely major draws for the growing number of consumers paying bills and banking online.

Since 2000, the number of U.S. households paying bills online soared by 78 percent, according to Fiserv’s 2010 Consumer Billing and Payment Trends Survey. Of the approximately 95 million households 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 to receive online invoices, the survey shows. And online is the preferred payment method among Generation Y customers for everything except their mortgages, according to a 2010 Javelin Research study.

Issuing bills and collecting payments over the Internet offers a wealth of benefits to small business owners (SBOs). Customers can be offered more options to pay their bills through both credit cards and eChecks, valuable time spent on sending and reconciling payments can be saved, and office supply and postage costs can be curtailed. AcceptPay from American Express OPEN (R) offers both payments acceptance and invoicing in a single solution. This eases the process for the SBO, and makes paying bills easy for customers who increasingly prefer to do business with companies that understand their online preferences.

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

AcceptPay offers a host of features, for one all-inclusive monthly fee. Users are able to accept customer payments using all major credit cards and ACH (eCheck), have payments deposited directly into their bank accounts and integrate their online billing activities into QuickBooks, a popular accounting program among SBOs.

AcceptPay allows business owners to accept payments online, over the 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 generate automated reminders for customers with overdue bills.

While a completely paperless world is probably still a long way off, the era of online billing and collecting payments has definitely arrived. Consumers are embracing the trend, and SBOs would benefit from joining them.

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