Cell phone contracts 101

Most working moms – and people in general – say they can’t live without their cell phones. In the United States in 2007, 242 million people subscribed to cell phones, up 11 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In Canada, some 22 million of the country’s 32 million people have cell phones, according to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA).

Those statistics do not mean that all consumers understand exactly what their cell phone contracts entail.

“When dealing with any business, there’s going to be a certain amount of legalese when you’re signing a contract,” explains Marc Choma, director of communications for the CWTA.

Carriers are not trying to purposefully confuse their customers, adds Adam Fendelman, cell phone guide for About.com.

Carriers “traditionally [have] just tried to protect themselves and their shareholders — financially and legally — first and foremost and then treat their customers well as a second priority.”

Your Rights

So what, then, are your rights and responsibilities as a cell phone user?

In both the U.S. and Canada, the cell phone industry is free and open, and quite competitive. There are no price regulations or contract mandates — depending on which you sign with, contract terms and prices vary.

That competition is good for consumers, says Fendelman, as carriers are beginning to simplify their plans due to customer complaints. He cites some carriers – including Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile and PlatinumTel – as “not only unshackling customers from contracts but helping to make the experience more straightforward.”

To do the same for Canadian consumers, in September the members of the CWTA launched a Code of Conduct. Available at cwta.ca, the document creates minimum standards for the cell phone industry and ensures consumers understand their rights, says Choma.

<continued to Q & A>

Cell phone contracts FAQ

Q: How is the cell phone industry regulated?

A: In the U.S., the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau oversees licensing and regulations for the cell phone industry. Consumers can file complaints against service providers through the Better Business Bureau.

Industry Canada serves a similar role to the FCC, and the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) handles issues including 911 accessibility, landline carriers and interconnection.

Q: What is the process for getting out of your cell phone contract?

A: To be a cell phone user does not mean you must have a contract, says Choma. You could choose to purchase a phone and sign up month to month or use pre-paid cards. However, having a contract – typically for one to three years — often means you pay less per month and get a free or reduced-price phone, as well as other features. “Just like any other business, the longer you commit to a company, the more likely they are to offer perks,” Choma says.

In those contracts, carriers set the prices you must pay to break the contract, which typically depends on how many months are left. Often, the fee is hefty, so keep track of when the contract expires, or avoid one altogether. Several consumer groups in the U.S. are fighting carriers’ ability to charge breaking-contract fees, says Fendelman:

“Various groups have been fighting tooth and nail to try to change the ability of [top four providers] Sprint, AT&T, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile to put you into a two-year wireless contract — while subsidizing the cost of your cell phone — and charge you $150 or so as an ‘early termination fee’ if you leave early.”

Q: Can you keep your phone number if you switch mobile carriers?

A: Yes. Wireless number portability has been available in the U.S. since 2004 and in Canada since 2007. Customers must contact their new carriers, which will transfer the number from the old carriers.

Though the cell phone marketplace can be confusing and sometimes costly for consumers, the competition between carriers is good for users, explains Choma. After all, with so many options, “if a customer is not satisfied,” he notes, “there’s always someone else more than willing to provide the service you want.”

Helpful Websites for Cell Phone Customers

About.com cell phone guide by Adam Fendelman
Federal Communications Commission cell phone information
Better Business Bureau
Consumer Reports cell phone guide

Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association Code of Conduct
Information on transferring cell phone numbers
Industry Canada (Canada Office of Consumer Affairs)
Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission

Doing Business During the Holidays

Though it is a festive time of year, the period between the U.S. Thanksgiving at the end of November and New Year’s Day often is synonymous with slow business.

Workers use up vacation days, do their holiday shopping, attend parties and entertain loved ones. Most clients and employees are distracted by the hullabaloo and may not be concentrating on the growth of their businesses.

During this “downtime,” there are many actions you as a business owner can tackle, from creating new marketing materials to evaluating employees to organizing files to planning for the new year. Business coaches from Canada and the U.S. share these ideas for making the most of slow season.

Be a cleaning machine: What better time to purge your paper and computer files? Save documents and receipts needed for tax purposes, and discard what you know you won’t use again. Delete old emails and follow up on ones you neglected. You can even disinfect your computer keyboard, desk and workspace, or give yourself the gift of a cleaning service.

Teach yourself: When the phone is quiet, spend some time on your computer. Learn new or updated software that could help your business, such as a more advanced billing or word processing system. If you have a PC, you can visit Microsoft’s online training modules at Microsoft.com (click on “training and events”). Mac users can visit training.apple.com.

Send out holiday correspondence/cards: As your clients are feeling festive, send them holiday cards. You stay on their radar and let them know how much you appreciate their business.

Take a break: If most of the business world is doing so, why shouldn’t you? Take yourself to the spa or lunch with loved ones, make appointments for those doctor visits you’ve neglected (teeth cleaning, mammogram, etc.). Do your own holiday shopping or buy that new printer your office has needed for months.

Look back, look ahead:  Above all, do not let the slowness of the season worry you. Use the time to catch up, clean up and reflect on the coming year’s responsibilities. You will feel refreshed and more able to savor the atmosphere. After all, you know things will pick up again.

No Slowing Down

By Melanie Lasoff Levs

While the holidays might mean a decrease in business for many companies, many see an increase in sales and workload, including:

Chefs and caterers: One personal chef says due to working holiday parties, he makes 25 per cent of his money between November and January.

Hotels: Many homes can’t fit all the relatives that come in for the holidays, so where else would they go? Hotels are also popular for corporate and other holiday parties.

Therapists: Joyous for most, but holidays bring up unpleasant memories and great pain for others. Social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists and other counselors are often swamped with clients the last few months of the year.

Companies that send mail and packages: The mail system, including the post office and packaging companies like UPS, is inundated during the holiday season.

Tanning salons: Many do most of their business in the winter months, as it is too cold outside to naturally tan and people want to look their best at holiday parties.

When the Mom and Pop of the Business Are Also Husband and Wife

Meet three MOMeo/DADeo Combinations

Marriage takes work. But what if your marriage IS your work? In other words, as the case with these married-couple entrepreneurs, what’s marriage and family life like when you own a business with your spouse?

There are multiple benefits to having a life partner who also is your business partner: never-ending together time, living with someone who completely understands your work life, and no worries about being fired. But reaping the benefits – and business success – takes time, effort, support and understanding between spouses, says Mary Ann Hardman.

Mary Ann, along with her husband William “Sonny” Hardman, owns and operates Persimmon Creek Vineyards in Clayton, Georgia. The 110-acre estate produces four varieties of wine, sold on site and in restaurants. The Hardmans also oversee three cottage retreats on the property.

“If you want your business and your marriage to work, you have to have great trust in one another,” says Mary Ann.

“You can’t feel you have to be tied at the hip. You can both do your jobs, do your thing, and have respect.”

All Hands Working

What works for the Hardmans, married 17 years, is a clear division of labor. Sonny, a full-time physician, owns his own dermatopathology practice 1 ½ hours south of the vineyard, in Athens, near the family home. He commutes every day to and from the vineyard to his lab, and on weekends, he handles much of Persimmon Creek’s manual labor.

Mary Ann lives at and runs the day-to-day operation of the business, including marketing. The couple’s sons – 11-year-old twins and a 15-year-old – also pitch in with gardening, trash pick-up and cutting grass.

Persimmon Creek is truly a family business, Mary Ann explains:
“It’s all hands working together,” she says, “you don’t do your children any favors by not including them.”

Sonny’s hands originally created the vineyard in 2000, when he planted 10 acres of grapes in North Georgia to cultivate his passion for grape-growing. Still living in Athens, Mary Ann focused on the boys, then toddlers. 

“My role at that point was just to wave out the door and say, `See ya later! Have fun planting,’” she recalls.

In 2002, they bottled their first wine. A year later, Mary Ann decided to try selling to local restaurants. Gradually, as the boys – and her marketing savvy – grew, Mary Ann became more involved in the wine business. Currently, she employs two full-time workers in the vineyard and has part-time help in the summer.

Today, the Hardmans are surrounded by the fruits of their labor – literally.  The family’s home is on Persimmon Creek property.

“You have to have one goal in mind: success. And success is all about working,” says Mary Ann.

“I let Sonny do what he needs to do and he lets me do what I need to do. You have to be confident you’re both doing the right thing.”

Doing the Duty

When Brian and Michelle Lewis had their daughter in 2004, they felt cloth-diapering her was the right thing. A self-proclaimed environmentalist and political activist, Brian says cloth is better for the environment and healthier for baby:

“It was never a question…of course they would be in cloth [diapers].”

Many friends commented they, too, would choose cloth if there were a local diaper service.  So, in early 2006, with a son on the way, the Lewises started Brian Lewis’ Diaper Duty, which delivers clean cloth diapers to customers in South Florida and picks up dirty ones. They introduced the service at holistic birthing centers and through parent groups throughout their community.

“We were quite surprised, without any advertising or promotion but just word of mouth,” says Brian, “there was a lot of interest.”

Currently, Brian Lewis’ Diaper Duty has 45 customers. He and Michelle also offer diapering seminars and plan to start carseat checks, and other parenting classes and groups. Brian continues his full-time job as a data networker for a telecommunications company. Michelle is an elementary school teacher. For them to quit their day jobs, Brian says, they need at least 150 customers and would hire out several duties, including washing.

Today, though, the couple pools responsibilities for the business and their two children, now ages 5 ½ and 3.

“We do what needs to be done at the time,” Brian explains, adding that they have a delivery driver. Brian handles customer and public relations while Michelle manages behind the scenes, website management and diaper washing. 

“The division of labor ebbs and flows,” he says. “It’s not as though we do a duty chart between us. It’s just `did this get done yet? OK, I’ve got it.’”

“(Work) has to be incorporated. When I’m wearing the diaper hat, we’re all a part of it,” he says. 

“We’re having our parent time, our couple time, while we’re doing Diaper Duty. If we were to have [work and family time] separated…we’d never see each other.”

The plan is for the Lewis children to eventually inherit the business.

“To have your own business and incorporate your family and raise your children to see your business grow into something in the world that has value,” says Brian, “is tremendous.”

By Their Design

Ten years ago, Stamford, Connecticut, businesswoman Fabienne Fredrickson started Client Attraction – an entrepreneurial coaching program and book series to help a mostly female clientele to recognize their value through growing their businesses. 

As she signed more clients and sold more books and other products, Fabienne realized it was time for a business partner. What better place to look than her own home?

Husband Derek, director at an investment bank, was increasingly dissatisfied with corporate life. So in summer 2008, he started working part-time with Fabienne on day-to-day operations of Client Attraction, including staff management and systems operation. The arrangement worked so well by that September, Derek quit his day job and joined his wife full-time as CEO.

“We’re both fully invested in the business,” he says. 

“We have double the implementation and speed to react to changes together. We control our income, our business, our life. We live our life by design.”

That life includes children ages 6 and 4, and a brand-new baby boy, born in August. To keep both the business and family successful, the Fredricksons rely on the support of a daily housekeeper and an au pair. 

The children also travel with their parents to Client Attraction events, workshops and speaking engagements, “so they can see Mommy and Daddy working together and feeling good spending time together,” Derek says. 

“Marriage and being together with our family is priority first. Business comes second.”

Unlike the Lewises, the Fredricksons have strict rules about not mixing family and business time:

“We close our desks every day at 5:30 p.m. – no exceptions.”

“We have end-of-day routines and transitions like walks, reading, or going to the gym. All of these are key [to maintaining balance].”

Though they separate work and marriage, owning a business together has strengthened their bond, according to Derek.

“We have a greater sense of respect and admiration for what each other brings to the business and how we learn from each other.”

Those, too, are some key traits to maintaining a successful mom-and-pop/husband-and-wife company, he says. 

“There is also an element of faith in being committed to making it work,” Derek explains. 

And, he adds, both in work and in marriage, “it doesn’t hurt to have a sense of adventure and creativity.”

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