Everyone may not agree on if the best cell phone is a BlackBerry, iPhone, or Android. But they will agree that a cell phone is crucial to business. 'I'd say a cell phone is one of the top five tools of a business,' says Vernard Martin, senior systems administrator for the Center for Comprehensive Informatics at Emory University in Atlanta. 'They play a critical role in the communications infrastructure of any business, from a mom-and-pop shop to a mega-corporation.' 

A missed text, a dropped call, or the inability to access a website can potentially cost a company millions. Cellular service providers will try to reel you in with funny, eye-catching commercials and a seemingly endless parade of new handsets sporting new features they just can't live without. Your decision of how to equip your workforce and which of the countless providers to partner with can make a big difference to your bottom line in a number of ways, but with a little research, the choice can be much easier than you anticipate.

How to Choose a Cell Phone Plan for Your Business: Is Your Business Right to Go Mobile?

Always look at your business and determine how cell phones are going to be used to address your company's communications needs. 'For every business, you have to look very carefully at the business drivers behind the communication,' says Heinan Landa, CEO of Optimal Networks, a Maryland IT management company.

Cell phones are useful when mobility is a major concern, but there are some trade-offs. 'We have some clients who are law firms, and their people spend an inordinate amount of time in the office on the phone with clients,' says Landa. 'So for them a cell phone would not be as useful. There might be issues with call quality; they'd lose some nuances of speech and interaction. You want to approach that decision carefully. But on the other hand, if I am starting up a buying business where I am going to be out of the office most of time, it's more important that I am reachable and know where I am going than having extended conversations.'

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How to Choose a Cell Phone Plan for Your Business: Research Your Company Calling Habits

Pull some copies of past phone bills to get an accurate read on your company's calling patterns. Are your business calls mostly local, or does a fair amount activity take place across the country? Would you need to have free or low-cost international calls added to your plan? Would data and texting be useful to your organization? Once you have these questions answered, you can start to see what kind of cell phone plan will suit the companies needs best.

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How to Choose a Cell Phone Plan for Your Business: Outfit Your Key People

It is unlikely that members of your organization are going to need a cell phone for their day-to-day work. Depending on the size of your business, limiting the number of phones you assign can save money on the plan you eventually select. 'If you've mapped out your group's communication needs, that should direct who is going to be issued a phone, says Martin. 'Normally, senior management is going to have them so they can reach each other in emergencies or crisis management situations. And if you have any sales force that has to be mobile, having to monitor both a desktop phone and a mobile phone is not worth the hassle,' says Martin. 

Assess the mobility needs of each member of your team. Are they client-facing? How much time do they spend away from the office? Do their responsibilities end at 5pm, or are they always somewhat on the clock? Will the phone be used primarily for calls, or will they be heavy data users as they check email and access files on the fly? If there's a crisis in the organization, who will need to be immediately reachable? 

Once you know how many employees and members of management you will have to equip and how they will be likely to use the cell phone, you'll be able to drill down on a plan that can not only provide you with a package of talk time and data services that will accommodate everyone, but you may also be able to get a discount on the phones themselves. 

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How to Choose a Cell Phone Plan for Your Business: Finding a Service Provider

The best way to select a cell phone carrier is by comparing cell phone carriers in your area. Select at least three cell phone carriers and compare their plans, network coverage, range of services, whether they provide monthly plans, prepaid plans, contract plans, whether they have unlimited plans or a 3G network. Here are a few  things to consider and compare when selecting a cell phone carrier.

Local or national: AT&T and Verizon, the top two national carriers, are the choice for most companies, but if your business operations tend to be confined to your local or regional area, consider a smaller local service provider. Local providers usually charge lower rates on voice and data packages and offer more personalized service for the business accounts they serve.

Check the coverage maps: Coverage area maps are available on every cell carrier's web site. Check out not only your local area, but the coverage in all the areas you expect to be doing business. If the map shows a strong presence in your home region, but coverage is sparse in the cities where you'll be spending a lot of time with clients, then not only will you have spotty service, but your company will likely get socked with roaming charges on both calls and the data, which can push your cell phone budget far out of line.

Consider security: If you anticipate the use of smart phones to access any kind of sensitive data while out in the field, security will be an important consideration when choosing a provider. While basic security measures start with the handset, make sure your service provider allows you the ability to maintain some control over the equipment. 'You should be able to trigger a ‘wipe' of any company cell phone if the device gets lost or the person leaves the company,' says Landa. 'You have to be able to protect your data.'   

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How to Choose a Cell Phone Plan for Your Business: Make Sense of the Plans

Cell providers offer a wide range of plans for business accounts, including bundles of voice minutes, texts, emails, and data, but most require a minimum of five lines of service. 

Get the grid: Always start with the datasheet offered by the carrier. This gives you an easy visual way to compare the price, number of minutes, and data allowances in each level of service they offer. Highlight a couple of plans that fall in line with the needs you outlined for your company, but be sure to read the fine print for extra fees, particularly overage charges. A low-cost plan may not be worth it if you incur huge overage fees, especially in data usage.  

Take your ‘friends and family' to work: Major cell providers now offer business version of the friends and family plan, allowing the company to designate ten most commonly called business numbers—landline or mobile—for unlimited voice calling. 'On a corporate plan, having a friends and family feature can show dramatic savings,' says Landa,' but make sure you have the flexibility to change those numbers whenever you need to.' Taking those commonly called numbers out of the equation can help save voice minutes, but the feature is not usually available on the lowest price plans.

Consider sharing: Plans which offer shared pools of minutes may offer lower costs, but make sure the vendor can issue individual phone reports along with it to keep tabs on where the minutes are being used. 

Beware of the data trap: Unlimited data plans have largely become a thing of the past, and data overages can be very expensive. While it is easy to calculate and anticipate voice minutes, because data is expressed in megabytes and gigabytes, it can be hard to translate that into a solid picture of how many files, presentations, and other pieces of data you will be able to move across your allotted stream.  If there is any confusion, talk to an independent IT professional to get a handle on how much data you need to include in your plan. Do not rely on solely on information from the cell company rep; it may cost you in the long run. 

Do not fear the haggle: While the pricing is laid out in black and white, there still may be some room to negotiate with the cell service provider on some aspects of your plan and equipment. 'Even three years ago, I'd have said it's useless to haggle with any of the major wireless companies,' says Martin, 'but now it has changed. Both AT&T and Verizon are trying to appeal to small business customers.' As new business customer, you may be able to ask for discounts on the plan rate, additional lines at a lower rate, or even a shorter upgrade window so that you can take advantage of new phones that come into the market during your contract. Determine what concessions would be most important to you and don't hesitate to ask for them.

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How to Choose a Cell Phone Plan for Your Business: Keep an Eye on the Bottom Line

Checking over the cellular bills can be a pain, but it pays to examine them periodically to make sure that your company is getting the most value out of the plan you've chosen. 'It's absolutely necessary to vet the monthly bills, at least initially', says Martin. 'Once you get an idea of the patterns of use, then you just check the total amount to see if it's in line.' 

Over time, if you see that you are using more data, or fewer minutes than you anticipated over, call the vendor. Most will adjust your company plan to give you a better deal, although beyond the first three months of service, you may have to extend the contract to get an adjustment. 

Remember that cell service is a just a contract, not a lifelong commitment. Pay attention not only to the costs, but also to the customer service the provider offers. You may find that you want to shop around again near the end of your company's contract.

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