Prepaid Cellular Helps Agents Help Small Business Owners

By Dan Baldwin, Telecom Association President

Call me crazy, but I hate cell phone slavery. After 15 years of enduring one-sided cell phone contracts with one wireless provider or another I “stuck it to the man,” switched to prepaid cellular, kept my cell phone number and learned how to make money as an agent distributing prepaid cellular services to my business customers.

In many ways, I’m getting mellower as I creep up on my 50th birthday. With three kids of my own, I can easily volunteer to sit next to a baby on a plane. Crazy drivers cutting me off on the freeway? No problem. I’m really in no hurry; please, merge ahead of me. But having to renew my cell phone contract back to a full two years because I have to bump up to a bigger bucket of minutes to cover calls made at a semi-annual trade show? No. Not just no but, %#&k NO!

As a telecom agent for more than a decade and a cell phone customer for more than 15 years, I have had to endure the indignity of just taking whatever the cell phone companies dish out. I’ve tried to keep my own cell plan on the right bucket month after month — to little avail or savings. I’ve sadly told my business telecom customers that I can do little for their cell phone bills. I can’t earn enough in commissions or charge them enough in consulting fees to make going over their phone bill worth it for me or them. Over the years I’ve learned that unless you significantly change your calling habits, no matter how much time you invest checking different cell plans, there’s just no way to get any serious savings by switching plans or switching to another provider. For the past 10 years I have resigned myself to paying $100-plus bucks a month for cell phone service no matter what.

Well that all came to an end six months ago. I had been a Nextel captive customer for about seven years. My wife and I got hooked on the “push to talk” feature early on, so we could never really switch to another network. For seven years we enjoyed Nextel’s great network while enduring their somewhat unforgiving customer service. When I heard that Sprint had purchased Nextel I was enthralled. My thought was, “Finally, I can speak to nice people who care about keeping my business.”

Like most dads/small business owners, my cellular account grew from one handset (for me) to five after adding extra phones for elderly parents and teenagers. I have as many cell phones on my own account as many of the small business customers I consult for. Having five cell phones on a single account bumps me up into a “commercial account” where I get a bubbly and helpful account executive fresh out of college, right?

But I digress. For the past two years I had been biding my time with Nextel. I bit the bullet on every service request and paid whatever fee was necessary to avoid renewing my contract. Six months ago, I placed an optimistic call to the new Sprint Nextel to see how badly they wanted to keep my business, as I was no longer under contract for any of the phones on my account. I thought, “I have the upper hand. I will bring this big pin-dropping corporation to its knees. It will do my bidding. It will submit to my outrageous customer requests. It will give me five new cell phones. It might even wash my car and throw in a nice foot rub in exchange for my putting my five phones on a new two-year agreement and waiving $120 in overcharges from the previous month’s bill.”

Oh, Dan, You Crazy Dreamer

In more than two hours on the phone with countless supervisors I learned that simply being owned by a new company that paints everything yellow had not changed anything with Nextel. Seven years of patronage earned me nothing more than what they offered someone who had never been a customer.

Quick calls to Verizon, “the real Sprint” and Cingular taught me that in seven years nothing had really changed. I wasn’t going to save any real money by telling Nextel what they could do with their phones and switch to another network. I would simply be switching from one hard-nosed cell phone company to another.

Well forget that! It was time to reset my expectations. It was time to consider wireless communication options that did not include indebted servitude.

Prepaid Cell Phones For Real People

Before trying it out for myself, I naturally assumed that prepaid cell phones were specifically created for terrorists, drug dealers, motor-mouth teenagers and indigent family members. Certainly no self-respecting entrepreneur would sneak into the prepaid phone isle at Wal-Mart to purchase a phone in a plastic box that you need to recharge with a steady stream of $20 phone cards.

In searching for a replacement for my Nextel phone, I quickly discovered that almost every Motorola “Nextel” phone had an equivalent Motorola “Boost Mobile” twin. Furthermore, I learned that the market for used Nextel/Boost Mobile compatible phones on eBay was pretty robust. Practically any prepaid phone I could buy could be easily sold on the Internet for 75 percent or more of the original retail value. Wow! All of a sudden I saw that I could have any phone I wanted for only as long as I needed it. If I found something else I want to try, I could just sell the old phone on the Internet and buy a new phone.

When writing this article I compared the top Nextel/Boost Mobiles phone models i880/i885. At retail, the Boost Mobile i885 cost $349. The price was only $50 less for the Nextel twin i880 if I signed a two-year agreement and if I figured out how to get the $50 rebate form filled out and submitted correctly. I suddenly realized that prepaid cell phones can be for real people who have “seen the light.”

Savings and Service Without Servitude

Getting my old Nextel cell phone numbers switched to my new Boost Mobile cell phones took a bit of doing, but it was actually easier than I thought it would be. The only question that remained was, “Would I actually save any money?” After six months with the Boost Mobile service the savings answer is, “Yes!”

The biggest saving I experienced was by avoiding 40-cents per minute overages and/or not having to pay for big buckets of minutes that I’d never use. All of a sudden, I had cell phone service that made sense. Calls during working hours were 20 cents per minute. All other calls were 10 cents per minute.

Best of all there are no taxes, surcharges or other carrier specific fees that give you that sick-in-the-stomach feeling of “cell plan buyer’s remorse.” The other big savings are on low-use phones. My 80-something depression-era in-laws keep their phone charged and take it with them everywhere but only use maybe 10 minutes a month. I’ve gone from paying $40 a month for their phone to less than $10. The same applies for two other low-use phones on my account.

And, no, you don’t have to stop at a liquor store every other day to buy a $20 prepaid cell phone card to recharge your prepaid cell phone (But you can if you want to!). The Boost Mobile prepaid cellular service allows you to automatically recharge your account a set number of times per month from a registered credit card. This option makes the billing of a prepaid cell phone all but indistinguishable from a regular cell phone account.

In all, my total cell phone bill for five phones has gone from about $350 a month to $200 per month. Sure it’s not a ton of money, but $150 a month in savings is REAL money. Whats more is the value I place on being able to tell my cell phone company. “You’re fired!”

Speaking of service, it’s been as good technically as it was before. the Boost Mobile network and the Nextel network are the same as far as I can tell. The competence of the customer service people is about the same. The biggest service difference is in my attitude. I never worry about getting a nasty cell phone bill surprise anymore. I also never have to grovel and beg for a $120 bill credit when I go over my monthly allowance of minutes.

The Agent Angle on Prepaid Cell Phones

So “where’s the money” for agents in prepaid cell phones? It’s in actually being able to empower small business owners. It’s in showing them how they can break their own cellular servitude by making the switch to prepaid cellular where appropriate. The actual 10 percent commission agents can make on a prepaid customer’s minutes or the 20 percent or more agents can make on the handsets are not likely to be more than what agents can make in one-time spiffs putting customers into two-year cellular contracts.

The real prepaid cellular “agent angle” is that by enlightening your small business customers about prepaid cellular, you are positioning yourself in the true consultant’s role and out of the role as just another slick cell phone salesman. I mean, really, by selling a prospect the exact same cell package they can get through the Internet or at a cell phone storefront, what telecom consulting value are you bringing to the equation?

Differentiate your entire business telecom consulting solution by being one of the few telecom consultants telling small business owners that prepaid might be a viable cell phone option for some if not all of their businesses cell phones. Heck, give your customer a couple high-end phones at your wholesale cost and you might pick up that MPLS data network order you’re really after.

The bottom line is that few telecom agents are talking to small business owners about cell phone options that make the agent seem like a real consultant. As a telecom agent, you can reasonably profit from distributing prepaid cellular services in niche markets.

The real profit though in prepaid cellular services is in the bigger telecom network service deals you might be invited to bid on after getting your foot in a business owner’s door by being the one consultant that shows him or her a prepaid cell phone option that makes sense that no one else is talking to them about.

The “CrackBerry” Caveat

The information above deals with the majority of those small business owners that use cell phones for regular, run-of-the-mill voice cell phone calls. Certainly there are telecom agents that specialize in providing high-end, all-in-one wireless device solutions for busy business executives where constant e-mail and broadband Internet connectivity is required and price is not an issue.

Prepaid cellular solutions don’t currently play in the high-end wireless solution space. The magic of prepaid cellular, though, is that now you can access meaningful solutions for the entire continuum of wireless needs.

A whole lot of businesses just need a dirt cheap cell phone solution that doesn’t come with a contract. This is where prepaid wireless plays.

Dan Baldwin is president of


and can be reached at+1 951 245 6877 or

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