Mindy Prowler worked as a customer service manager for three mobile-phone resellers before she started her own company, Thousand Oaks (Calif.)-based Cellular Billing Consultants, a dozen years ago. She sells her insider expertise mostly to small business owners who want to cut out-of-control cell-phone expenses. She finds that new clients are often paying 10 percent to 60 percent more per month than they should, thanks to billing errors and inappropriate pricing plans. Prowler, whose business employs three and brings in $150,000 annually, spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Karen E. Klein: Even the smallest companies are issuing mobile phones or BlackBerrys to their employees these days. What's that doing to their bottom lines?
Mindy Prowler: It's costly—and it's more costly than it should be for most companies because they are simply paying their bills rather than managing these expenses. This is one bill that shouldn't be sent through to accounts payable before performing a thorough audit.
Those bills are not usually very transparent.
Oh, these bills are scary-complex, with lots of different components that are changing all the time. There are new downloads and new data plans and new pricing plans coming out constantly, so unless you're doing an analysis every month on your bill, you don't know where you're overpaying.
What kinds of issues turn up when you audit clients' monthly bills?
I find that companies have unused inventory, they're on old pricing plans that can be improved upon, and they have features that aren't being properly managed. Sometimes I find straight-out billing errors. If I can't get resolution on an error, I don't hesitate to file a complaint with the California Public Utilities Commission. The carriers do respond to those—very quickly.
What do you mean by "unused inventory"?
For instance, a Fortune 500 media company hired me a few years ago. I found that they were adding phone lines like mad, without realizing that about 30 percent of their existing lines weren't being used any more because of employee turnover. They were just telling their phone company sales representative to set up new employees with phones. I was able to shave about 40 percent off their bill.
That same rep was also putting them on an ancient plan that they had signed up with years earlier and was no longer in their best interest. That's one reason why you don't want to have your account managed by a carrier's sales rep.
Is that common?
Yes. It's shocking but it's very common. The problem is that the sales people are typically paid commissions based on the pricing plan they put you on. So they're not necessarily going to tell you about specials or downgrade your account, even if you're paying for more service than you need.
What do you tell entrepreneurs to look for when they are reviewing their mobile bills?
Look and see what your overage charges are—whether they are accurate and whether there is a better, more cost-effective plan you could add that would absorb those overages. Make sure you're getting the use of your rollover minutes.
Check to see if you're eligible for discounts and make sure you review your call details. Are 40 percent of your calls to one or two numbers? Your carrier may offer free calling to selected numbers or a feature that can be added that allows for free calling to selected numbers.
And watch out for charges that are incurred because of unrequested features added to your lines, because employees may be checking sports scores or watching videos. I will often block those kinds of third-party subscription services for my clients.
What should you do if you see charges that you don't understand or you think you haven't authorized?
If you don't understand something, question it. Call the carrier and make them explain it. If you're not communicating well with a representative, hang up and call back. I sometimes have to call three times to get somebody who is experienced enough to know what I'm talking about.
What should small companies be paying for their mobile-phone service?
I like to calculate average cost per unit: Take the total monthly cost and divide it by the number of units on your account. I would say that $68 per unit is about the average monthly cost for a company that has 40 percent of its employees on BlackBerrys. If you give your employees basic phones, without the Internet data plans, you'll pay $25 to $30 less per unit.