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Phone rivals courting small businesses


Small-business owners across America are being courted by big and small telephone service and equipment companies hungry for business in these highly competitive times.

It seems that every week business owners are offered new, discounted long-distance calling plans or astonishingly low prices for cellular and other types of telephone equipment. With the price wars raging, now is a great time to re-evaluate your telephone needs to see if there is money to be saved.

AT&T;, for example, recently added four new long-distance options for small-business customers, bringing the total to 30. Many of the options require customers to sign an 18-month contract.

"We don't believe one size fits all," said Joseph P. Nacchio, president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co.'s business communications services unit. "That's why we continue to provide value through a choice of feature-rich calling services tailored to customers' individual needs."

Rival MCI is pushing a discount plan called Friends of the Firm, which provides discounts if you are willing to hand over a list of your most frequently dialed numbers. Sprint is offering 100 free minutes of long-distance calling to customers who sign up for an enhanced "Foncard."

Since Congress deregulated the telephone industry in 1984, long-distance rates have decreased as much as 40 percent, depending on the carrier. But with so many companies and so many rates available, it's difficult to figure out which to choose.

Rich Dunn, general manager of Express Tel in San Diego, a smaller, regional long-distance company, suggests taking the time to identify your specific calling needs. Figure out whether you need dedicated long-distance lines and determine which cities you call the most.

"Customers should re-evaluate their rates and services at least annually to ensure they are still getting value," Dunn said.

Business owners can save money on shorter calls because more carriers bill in six-second increments, rather than full minutes. This works especially well for document transmission calls made by your fax machine.

After you find the best deal on long-distance, consider the advantages of buying or leasing a cellular telephone. Cellular rates are becoming more competitive as the price of the phones continues to drop below $500.

"Whether you are self-employed and trying to get a business off the ground, or you're a manager looking for an advantage over the competition, cellular telephones can extend your business capabilities," said Alfred Boschulte, president of Nynex Mobile Communications in Orangeburg, N.Y.

In December 1984, there were only 91,600 cellular subscribers in the nation, according to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in Washington. Now, there are more than 7.6 million cellular subscribers, up 40 percent from January 1991. New cellular telephone sales are expected to reach 3.3 million by the end of this year, the association said.

Even the tiniest businesses can benefit from cellular service.

"Our business changes so rapidly, I wouldn't part with my mobile telephone," said Joanne Boris, founder of Cookie Cupboard in Lancaster, N.Y. Boris, who bakes and delivers cookies the same way a florist delivers flowers, started the business in her home in 1987.

Before she opened a retail store last year, she relied on her mobile telephone to keep up with orders and deliveries.

Today, Boris and her partner, Elly Roche, take their mobile telephone to craft shows and trade fairs, where they use it to call in for credit card authorizations, among other things.

Mikhail Berik, an electrician based in Long Beach, Calif., spent about $700 on a transportable mobile telephone so his customers can reach him wherever he is.

"First, I had a beeper, then a secretary, but that was not good enough," Berik said. "The customers want to talk to me directly."

The phone is one of his major expenses. Berik spends between $140 and $160 a month for his cellular phone service because the person receiving the call pays the charges.

"I carry it with me every place," said Berik, who emigrated from Leningrad, Russia, about four years ago. "I go to the basement, I pick up my phone. I go to the attic, I pick up my phone. I work seven days a week; that's the reason the people call me."

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