Picking the Right Wireless Plan

Friday May 23rd 2003 by David Haskin
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Wireless phones have become an essential business tool. An independent small business wireless expert helps you pick the plan that can best help your company succeed.

Once handy gadgets, wireless phones are now mission-critical tools for many small businesses. However, one expert believes that most small companies don't acquire wireless service wisely.

"In small businesses, the norm is to leave the choice of a wireless plan up to the individual," noted Bob Egan, president of Mobile Competency; a consulting firm that focuses on wireless services for small companies.

Employees typically pick the most appealing wireless plan from a consumer's perspective and don't base their decisions on the needs of the company, Egan said. While this may seem like the simplest approach, this practice both wastes money and prevents your company from realizing the true potential of wireless service, Egan claimed.

However, there are ways that small companies can ratchet down wireless costs and ensure that wireless service meets their strategic business needs, he stressed.

Cost: All Together Now
The first step, according to Egan, is to aggregate your phone service. Ideally, that means buying wireless and traditional landline telephone service from the same carrier. At the very least, you should put all your employees under the umbrella of the same wireless carrier.

"No matter what carrier you go to, if you buy, say, 1,000 wireless minutes a month for 100 employees, your company will get a lot more attention and better prices than if individuals walk in off the street," Egan said.

He said that, typically, wireless carriers become interested in negotiating price if you have 50 or more employees who need service. You should go out of your way to increase the number of minutes to which you commit, Egan said. One way to do that is to allow employees to participate in your company's wireless service plan for their personal use, paying the company back for services they consume. The employees will appreciate the lower rates and you'll have better ability to negotiate, Egan said.

Remember, though, that you are negotiating for the use of wireless phones for business, not consumer use, Egan stressed.

"I laugh at consumer plans where for $39.95 you get a few minutes during the day and a zillion minutes for nights and weekends," Egan said. "For small businesses, it's about total cost of ownership for business use during the business day. It's also about the total cost, including options and the capital cost of the handsets."

If you are willing to commit to buying lots of minutes, the carrier should lower the cost of options and help defray the cost of the handsets, including replacing lost or broken devices at a discount or even free, Egan said.

The Other Four "C's"
Cost is only one of the "five C's" you should consider when acquiring wireless service, according to Egan. Another key consideration is coverage, which refers to where you can get a signal without paying roaming or long distance charges.

"Study the coverage before you buy and examine it by business groups within your company," Egan advised.

By that, he meant that some small companies with a strictly local focus might only need regional wireless coverage. However, if you have offices in multiple locations or employees, such as sales personnel, who travel frequently and widely, you'll need a national service plan that has no roaming or long distance costs. Typically, that means you'll need to purchase wireless service from a so-called first-tier national carrier such as Cingular, Verizon Wireless or AT&T Wireless instead of a second-tier, or regional, carrier.

The third "C" to consider is capabilities, according to Egan. Many people only use their phones for making and receiving calls. However, wireless phones these days are capable of far more than that.

"You have to determine whether there is phone functionality that you can take advantage of that is aligned with your core business initiatives," he said. "For instance, say it is important in your business that sales people to respond to customer in minutes, not hours."

If that's the case, you need strong messaging capabilities, Egan said. At the very least, that means voice mail and three-way calling, features commonly offered by wireless carriers.

"Every carrier has features like voice mail, but if you need those services, negotiate them into the plan. If you're buying 100,000 minutes a month, you shouldn't be shy about asking for free three-way calling. Why pay more if it's critically important to your business?"

These days, wireless carriers can deliver your company's key data to your employees' phones. That provides on-the-spot access to information such as customer relationship management (CRM) and inventory data. If, for example, a salesperson can instantly provide product availability information to customers, he or she may be able to close a sale more quickly and easily. Data capabilities also enable traveling executives to check e-mail while they're away and field service representatives to check on the availability of parts.

Before committing to wireless data, however, you should understand the costs beyond basic wireless data service. Specifically, you'll need data-ready wireless devices, which cost more than regular wireless phones. You'll also need software to deliver corporate data to the devices of remote employees and programmers to prepare the software for your specific applications.

The fourth "C" is capacity, which relates to the carrier's ability to handle calls during peak times.

"Everybody has experienced trying to make a phone call during rush hour," Egan said. "What if somebody's trying to call you and they can't get you for an hour. That's not good for businesses." Make sure your carrier can maximize the chances your employees can send and receive calls regardless of location and time.

The final "C" is clarity, according to Egan. That is self-explanatory — you want to hear and be heard clearly.

Egan said it is essential that small businesses not only consider the "five C's," but also align their strategic needs with their wireless service plan. If you don't, he cautioned, you are likely to spend more money than you need for less effective service than you are capable of receiving.

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