"Putting it on the plastic" used to be what you did after a good meal at a restaurant. But in the 1980s, Americans learned how to put telephone calls on credit cards.
It's been big business ever since.
About $6 billion in long distance charges will be billed to 108 million calling cards in 1990, according to Transaction Billing Resources Inc., which processes calling card bills. At least half of those charges are made on business accounts.
Most of those cards are issued by the three major carriers: American Telephone and Telegraph Co. (44 million), MCI Communications Corp. (15 million), and US Sprint Communications Co. (10 million).
And depending on whom you talk to, at least 45 to 70 percent of those are charged to business accounts, from the sales rep who needs an inventory update from the home office in Oshkosh to the company vice president who missed his connecting flight and is stuck in Pittsburgh.
Customer calling cards have become part of the long-distance telephone war as the major carriers pour money into improving existing cards or creating new ones with extra features.
Some of these "improvements" are superfluous, such as a company logo embossed in the upper left-hand corner of the calling card.
"With the exception that our pricing is lower than AT&T's and that we offer Braille calling cards, basically the differences between Sprint and the others are virtually nil," said Vince Hovanec, the national media relations manager for US Sprint.
Other, more concrete, improvements have been adopted by the major long-distance carriers just to stay competitive with their rivals.
Indeed, when Telecom USA Inc., the nation's No. 4 long-distance carrier, unveiled a calling card earlier this year that allowed callers to set up a conference call with up to 300 participants, MCI not only liked the idea, it agreed to buy the company for $1.25 billion.
Many calling card options make billing and telephone costs simpler to manage for small and medium-sized businesses.
Some services, for example, are designed to minimize the major downside to business calling cards: employee abuse.
Any number of MCI FONCARDs can be distributed to company employees on one account and at the end of the month a detailed bill enables company executives to individually assess each card holder's usage.
AT&T's version of this service, called EXECU-BILL, allows a company to receive its billing and summary reports based on how the organization is structured, says Joseph Karas, AT&T's district manager for corporate calling card marketing.
"We customize reports and bills to the way a company wants it," he says. "Bills can be sent to different branches within a company or they can be sent to individual card holders."
AT&T offers the most services, ranging from the PRO series for the small business with basic out-of-office calling patterns to the VTNS (Virtual Telecommunications Network System), an elaborate customized calling program for corporate giants.
In June, MCI unveiled its VISION calling card, created for small to midsized businesses doing from $500 to $50,000 a month in billing. The VISION card can restrict the areas where an employee is calling. That can cut back on personal call costs.
The VISION card offers many of the same features as the popular MCI PRISM PLUS card, Mr. Hanson said, although the PRISM card, with its established customer base, isn't being phased out -- yet.
"VISION will probably replace PRISM over time," he said.