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The challenges of mobile billing

The devil's in the detail

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Workshop Managing mobile costs is one of those meaty issues that most people can share more than a few stories about. Whether it is the PA in HR who was running up bills of £500 a month calling her aunty in Australia, or the guy in sales who though it was OK to download a few episodes of Top Gear to pass some time while he was trying to clinch that deal in Oman.

Of course, going back a few years, the issue of managing mobile within the business was a fairly straightforward affair. Mobiles were few and far between, didn't do data, or roam, and even if people used them for personal use, then it wasn't really an issue as there was no way that it could be properly identified. So, why worry too much about it, especially as the cost to the business wasn't that great.

Fast forward to the present day, and managing mobile spend has become an altogether different beast. With its rise to a position of prominence in the overall comms budget, businesses cannot afford to ignore it. Yet while many like to think that they have a relatively good handle on mobile spend, the reality is that very few really do.

Even when the best possible deals seem to have been negotiated - which in itself is no small undertaking - companies then have to deal with the internal aspects around usage.

There are a number of elements to this, which can cause a fair amount of internal wrangling, both at a management and an individual level. Take the extent to which individuals are using their mobile, for example. Are some employees spending significantly more on mobile than others? And if so, are they more productive as a result? While these may be perfectly valid questions to ask, they can cause resentment and claims of a big brother approach when they are mooted.

Probably the most difficult thing to deal with is the rather contentious and involved issue of personal use. Most employees will use company issue devices to make some personal calls, and, depending on the level, most organisations are content to overlook these, providing they fall within a reasonable limit and do not get out of control. But of course, determining what that level should be, how much effort should go into tracking the extent to which people adhere to this, and what process should be followed when they don't, can be a difficult task that is likely to meet resistance from individuals and managers alike.

The experience of one senior director from a large organisation is likely to resonate with some.

Our preferred company stance is to charge people for personal use, but in reality, this is virtually impossible to do to any degree of even near-accuracy. Our provider gives us access to call information by user - date, time, duration and number called. But, at the end of the day, we have to export the information to Excel and do the analysis ourselves. It is easy to identify really obvious things such as intranet-company calls, which are obviously business calls, and calls which are made out of business hours, which are potentially personal calls, but everything else is a nightmare. Our sales and service staff can make hundreds of calls a day. Try separating out personal from business amongst them. Impossible. And even if you put the effort into doing it, you might end up only identifying £10, which is just not worth the effort.

Data usage on 3G is easier, at the moment, as we are now on a flat rate per user per month unlimited. Before that, though, we used to be on a usage-based tariff that was costing us the earth, and we had to negotiate hard with our provider to get away from. We were lucky, though, as we had some leverage as a very large enterprise.

Most operators will now provide a reasonable level of granularity on the bills they produce, often along with summary information. While this detail is important to provide transparency around charges, and to allow for easier identification of potential billing errors, it is questionable how much use can be made of it beyond this?

One could argue that operators should provide more support in terms of analysis, and to an extent some have tried to make inroads into this area with various telecoms expense management tools, which is a positive. But such tools do not always come for free, and often require a great deal of manipulation and user input. For companies prepared to take the plunge with them, providing these are implemented properly, they can foster a positive environment, where employees feel trusted and fairly treated. Implemented poorly, however, and employees could easily get the impression that the company is penny-pinching, and end up feeling resentful, which could end up costing the company more in lost staff loyalties.

Many companies, however, are still working with crude spreadsheet based tools to manipulate detailed information, or possibly not even trying to analyse their spend because it is too hard, and for these, it is debatable whether things are very different from years ago. Even when they get the trees, they still can't always see the wood.

How much of an issue is mobile cost management in your company? Is it a thankless, or even pointless task, or have you got it down to a tee? What tools have you used, and what has been your experience with them? Let us know in the comments area below. ®

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