How to Handle a Credit Card Processing Outage

How to Handle a Credit Card Processing Outage

Being prepared to handle credit card processing outages before they happen is a must for every business owner. Whether you operate entirely in-person, entirely online or a mix of both, not being able to accept credit card payments even for a short time could lead to you missing out on sales and potentially losing customers as well.

Because the credit card processing system involves so many different parties, it’s almost inevitable that something will go awry from time to time. However, knowing how to troubleshoot the problem and having a plan B (and C and D…) in place will help you to minimise any potential damage.

Step 1: Identify the Source of the Outage

There are any number of things that can go wrong with your payment processing system, and knowing what the problem is necessary in order to fix it. As soon as you notice an error message like “system offline” or “system error”, an error symbol on your WiFi icon, have customers emailing or calling to say they can’t pay or—the most obvious—all of the lights in the building go out, begin the troubleshooting process:

  • Is there a power outage? Try flicking a light on and off. If the power is out, check other parts of the building, visit your neighbouring buildings and call your electricity company to see how widespread the power outage is. It might be that someone blew the fuse, that a pole is down, that there was scheduled maintenance or that the weather interrupted the current.
  • Is the internet down? If you see an error symbol on your internet or WiFi icon, ask others in the building if their WiFi is also out. If the internet connection problem is affecting more than your device, reboot the router. If that doesn’t work, call your internet service provider to find out what the problem is and whether it’s regional or only affects you (in which case they might need to send technicians out).
  • Is there a problem with your hardware or software?
    • Hardware issues can arise when there is a faulty component or the hardware isn’t compatible with your chosen point-of-sale system. Check whether all of your POS terminals are out or only one and let your payment processor know.
    • Software issues may occur due to scheduled maintenance, a new update that hasn’t been installed or a technical glitch. First, check for updates and install any that are available. Then, reboot your system and call your payment processor if the software still doesn’t work.
  • Is it a card network issue? If transactions from a specific card brand aren’t going through, there might be a nationwide credit card outage affecting one of the major credit card companies. You can search the relevant card brand on to see if any outages have been reported.
  • Is it a payment processor issue? Occasionally, the problem might be with your payment provider. Check your emails and call your payment processor to see if they’re having technical issues with their payment gateway and when they anticipate that these issues will be resolved.

Step 2: Communicate with Your Employees, Service Providers, and Customers

As soon as you’ve noticed a credit-card processing outage, let your employees know and tell your customers that you won’t be able to process cards temporarily via a website banner or group email (for your online store) or by putting a sign on the door for a brick-and-mortar store. If you haven’t already done so, call or email your payment processor to let them know about the problem and find out if there’s anything they can suggest.

Step 3: Offer Alternative Payment Methods

While you find the problem and work on getting the credit card outage resolved (as much as it’s in your power to do so), offer customers alternative payment methods or find alternative ways to process card transactions in case your customers didn’t bring cash.

Source of Outage Try a different card Cash Cheque Written promise of payment Offline point-of-sale terminal Manual card swipe machine Virtual terminal on mobile with cellular data Mobile wallet payment with cellular data Electronic bank transfer Go to another store location
Widespread internet outage Yes, with cellular data Yes, if unaffected
Widespread electricity outage (including the internet router) Yes, with batteries or a generator Yes, with cellular data Yes, if unaffected
Widespread mobile outage Yes, if unaffected
Hardware malfunction Yes, if unaffected
Software malfunction Yes, if unaffected
Card network outage Yes, using a stored balance
Payment processor outage

Swipe credit card machines. If you still have one, a credit card swipe machine is very useful for these kinds of situations. Simply place the card in the machine, swipe to make a carbon imprint, and fill out the form.

A written promise of payment. You can have customers make a promise of payment and have them pay with a card over the phone once your system is back online.

An offline point-of-sale system stores transaction data and processes the payments once the system is back online. If there is an electricity outage, you can power your offline POS terminals with a backup battery or generator.

With all of these methods, you have no way to confirm whether the customers have sufficient funds in their bank accounts before handing over the product(s) purchased, so it does involve quite a bit of trust. If you decide not to risk it and ask customers to return the next day, offer a coupon or discount code as a way of apologising for the inconvenience.

Important note: If customers fill out a payment form that contains their card details, you must keep this form in a securely locked place with restricted access and destroy it after the payment has been processed. If you don’t do these two things and the card information is stolen, you could be sued for breaching the PCI data security standards.

Step 4: Catch Up on the Backlog of Orders

Once your credit card processing system is back online, you’ll need to work overtime to start any affected machines back up, log in to accounts, process manually swiped credit card transactions, call customers back so that they can pay over the phone, and allow offline transactions to process so that your payment data is up to date.

At this point, it’s also important to debrief with your team, analyse the event, and plan for future credit card outages. For example, if you found that you didn’t have an adequate backup processing system in place, now’s the time to invest in one before another outage occurs.

The Only Failure is a Failure to Prepare

While utility companies, credit card networks and payment processors work around the clock to keep everything running smoothly, even the occasional short-term glitch could cost you valuable revenue and discourage customers from coming back.

To minimise the effects of credit card processing outages:

  1. Ask prospective payment providers whether they’ve ever experienced a service outage and what they do to ensure that you can keep processing payments 24/7. Round-the-clock technical support should be included in your merchant services and exists precisely for situations like these.
  2. Have backup equipment available at all times in case of widespread power outages.
  3. For a brick-and-mortar store, consider having a manual cash register, manual credit card swipers, card payment forms, offline payment terminals, POS backup batteries and a generator on hand. Having a mobile device with cellular data and a virtual payment terminal allows you to accept credit cards on your phone while your regular system is offline.For an online store, your main backup device for processing payments during a regional power and internet outage would be a mobile device connected to the internet via cellular data. As long as the outage doesn’t affect your payment gateway, international customers could keep making payments as usual.

While life isn’t always predictable, expecting the unexpected is the best way to avoid being taken by surprise when it happens. And when you have a few pieces of backup equipment and partner with a reliable payment processor, a credit card processing outage should be—at most—a minor inconvenience.