Special Report: Doing Business With No Walls

Shop Like a Business, Not a Customer

Most entrepreneurs buy mobile devices, services and apps as if they were shopping for themselves--but it pays to find the plans and equipment that are meant for business.

Small-business operators are among the most desirable customers for mobile service providers. They aren't locked into corporate contracts. They aren't bogged down by legacy IT systems. They're usually early adopters, and typically they use mobile technology more than the average consumer. And they would probably use it more, given the right tools, applications and education.

But a disconnect remains between most small-business users and the mobile phone industry. Small-business owners looking to buy mobile phones are often treated more like consumers than business professionals with specific business needs.

"Just look when you go into a phone store," says Iain Gillott, president at iGR, a market research firm that focuses on the wireless and mobile industry. "The small-business user's buying process is exactly like the consumer's. They look around at the same phones and buy the same stuff as consumers. There is not any special segmentation."

The fact is, though, that mobile technology tore down the walls between our business lives and our personal lives, prompting the evolution of the so-called "prosumer." Devices like the BlackBerry and the iPhone have had a social impact that encourages us to always be working, even when we're not working. You may think you had a choice in the matter, and maybe you still think you do, but the improved functionality of mobile devices and the improved quality of mobile calling and e-mailing probably already has changed your business life. And small businesses--particularly the entrepreneurs whose brains, hearts and souls, drive those businesses--need to always be connected.

Small-business customers need to think differently when they're shopping for service. Since the in-store shopping experience doesn't particularly beckon the small-business user, purchasing through carrier sites online offers a somewhat more specialized approach.

Verizon Wireless, for example, offers a number of small-business service plans and employs "small-business specialists" in many stores. The company also has small-business account executives who offer further analysis through on-site consultation.

The emergence of application download stores, meanwhile, is helping small-business owners better understand the extent to which they can use their mobile phones for a variety of business processes, creating high-profile venues for obtaining specialized business applications. These applications might be considered foundational to any entrepreneurial business looking to spread its wings and remain productive and organized while doing so. In most cases, multiple-use licenses are available, and most of the applications are available for a variety of device types. DataViz Inc. already had iPhone and BlackBerry versions of Documents-to-Go this summer when it announced a new version of Android phone models rapidly becoming available, said Shari Hoffman, sales and marketing spokeswoman at DataViz. "A lot of small-business phone buyers probably don't know right away, even after they buy a phone, the things that they can do with it," she says.

"There is more education needed, and that will happen."

Here's a rundown of what the major carriers offer online:

  • Online resources: Verizon Wireless; Sprint; AT&T
  • Business segmentation: All three carriers offer the same tabs you'll see in the consumer portions of their sites, allowing you to shop by device type or service plan preferences. But the additional tab "industry solutions" on all three sites leads to a shopping experience defined by more specific segments, such as healthcare, construction, manufacturing, finance, distribution and professional services. Sprint, for example, highlights 14 specialized sectors.
  • Community features: Both Verizon Wireless and Sprint offer small-business community discussion forums through their websites.
  • Special assistance: Sprint touts its Solution Launchpad, a feature that allows you to clock on an "organization need" and then build a service plan from recommended devices, pricing structures and applications. Verizon hypes its network of small-business "specialists" and "account executives." AT&T has the AT&T Exclusively Business Center.
  • Special devices: AT&T still has a lock on the Apple iPhone, which increasingly is being promoted to business users. Verizon Wireless heavily hypes BlackBerry phones like the BlackBerry Tour. Sprint has the Palm Pre and several BlackBerry devices. Verizon and Sprint also offer the MiFi personal Wi-Fi device that links to the mobile broadband network to create a small Wi-Fi coverage umbrella that can be accessed by as many as five colleagues. Sprint also offers the Airave, a device that expands mobile network coverage inside small offices.
  • Other special features: All three carriers offer push-to-talk capability on some phones, though Sprint's long-standing Nextel Direct Connect is still considered the market leader. All three carriers offer navigational capabilities and location-based features. Verizon offers a Field Force Manager app with Job Dispatch, Electronic Timecard and Location and Tracking features.

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This article was originally published in the November 2009 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Special Report: Doing Business With No Walls.

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