Competition in the wireless industry has created a confusing mass of industry claims between competing services and technologies. But one thing is certain: A wireless phone can be a powerful business tool.
"The best way to start is to do a self- inventory," says Mike Houghton, president of Communicreate, a public-relations consulting firm, and a former spokesman for the Cellular Telephone Industry Association. "Determine what you need the phone for and how you plan on using it."
Will it be mostly for voice, or do you also plan to send data? Also determine the primary usage time. Will you use the phone during the workday, or is it mainly to extend the workday by making evening calls during the commute home or during weekend trips? In which areas will you be using it? Just in your local area or all over the metropolitan area? Out of state?
"Once you figure out how you are going to use it, you can compare that usage pattern to pricing plans, and pick the one that best meets your needs" notes Houghton. "When looking at pricing plans, it is my suggestion to assume you will use it more than you think. You think you'll put it in your car and only use it if you break down and need help, but then one day you'll be lost and call for directions. You'll realize how much time and aggravation it saved you, and you'll start using it for other things too."
If you will be traveling through rural areas where the distance to the nearest tower will be greater than normal, consider a phone with more power, such as those typically mounted in the car, rather than the small portable models. If business leads you to less desirable areas of town, a more inconspicuous model that doesn't require a car antenna might be a better choice.
If the conversations are of a sensitive nature, find a phone that offers scrambling or other security features. Once you have looked at all these questions in-depth, then you're ready to start shopping.
"There is a proliferation of wireless competitors and resellers," says Houghton. "It's easy to get confused, but if you've done a self-inventory, you can go into it informed on which phone is best for you."
Digital usually offers more deluxe features, such as messaging, faxing or the transmitting of data right from the handset. Because wireless data is still limited in speed, be sure to determine whether the phone will handle the duties you are expecting it to perform.
Many providers will offer you a cheap phone in exchange for an extended-service contract. If you break the contract, you usually have to pay the remaining price of the phone.
Be careful before signing any contract. The lure of a cheap or free phone often blinds people to the contract requirements. Contracts can limit your flexibility to adapt new technology that might be better suited for your needs. Many offers also include free minutes, but compare those with the time you'll actually be using the phone. Free minutes on the weekend are worthless to someone who uses the phone only for business during the week.
Companies are responding to the demands for flexibility by offering phones with either no contracts or ones limited in scope. You may end up paying more for the phone, but the long-term benefits may be worth the extra money.
"In the last year or so, there have been pricing plans offering services nationwide with no roaming charges," says Houghton.
Again, this is a feature that needs to be considered. A lack of roaming charges is of little use to someone who stays in the same area when using the phone.
"It's really good to find someone who knows the phone," says Houghton. "Almost everyone has some type of phone now. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Find out what service they have, and if they're happy with it. Find out what the customer service is like."
There are even phones available that can be used in Europe. For example, you could take your phone on your trip to France, and people back in the office could simply dial your wireless phone number to reach you. You would always be in touch with the office, regardless of your location.
"There's a lot of things happening in the industry to meet the needs of the small-business person better," says Houghton. "But don't dismiss analog services. You can get a cost break, and if all you needed was wireless voice communications, it's something to look at. If you need more, look at the digital services available."
Because many people want to avoid charges for incoming calls, they leave their phone turned off-which usually defeats the purpose of having it in the first place. However, many providers are now offering free voice mail with their phones. If the phone isn't on, the call goes directly to voice mail.
This feature allows for all incoming calls to be deposited into voice mail, where you can review them.
Some providers are also offering the first minute free for all incoming calls. This also gives the user a chance to decide if the call is important enough to pay for, or warrants a "let me call you back."
Theft should always be a concern.
"Whether it's you or your employees, don't leave the phone out in plain site," warns Houghton. "Don't leave it out on your car seat. They are very popular with crooks who like the ability to make calls and do illegal things using someone else's phone. Don't even leave the cord hanging out of the cigarette lighter."