TOLL-FREE TELEPHONE NUMBERS

Toll-free telephone numbers are a staple of business efforts to garner new customers and retain existing ones. By utilizing toll-free phone numbers, businesses provide clients and others with a means of communicating with them at no charge; instead, the business that maintains the toll-free line pays all costs associated with the line.

At one time, toll-free telephone numbers were a novelty. Since their inception in 1967, however, the U.S. economy has become increasingly service-based and competitive, creating an environment in which toll-free numbers have come to be expected by customers seeking to make purchases of all kinds of goods and services. But the popularity of toll-free numbers has created a growing shortage of the numbers in recent years. Indeed, reports indicate that the mid-1990s saw the same number of new toll-free numbers introduced as were assigned during the first two and a half decades of toll-free usage. This increase can be attributed both to improved technologies, which gave rise to pager, modem, and cellular phone usage (many of which have 800 numbers); the ease in obtaining toll-free telephone numbers through promotional packages; 800 number portability from carrier to carrier; and the growth in use of "vanity" numbers (i.e., 800-FLOWERS, 800-HOLIDAY). Another key factor in the explosion of toll-free numbers was an FCC ruling that took effect in 1993, granting companies ownership of their toll-free numbers. "Before that time, a company with an 800 number that wanted to change from AT&T to Spring for long-distance had to have its number deleted from the AT&T database, then see if Sprint had the same toll-free number available, which was unlikely," wrote Telephony's Phil Britt. "So rather than change toll-free numbers, the company would stay with its original long-distance carrier. After the ruling took effect, the toll-free numbers were maintained … on a centralized database rather than on separate databases by each of the long-distance companies…. That meant lower cost and keener competition."

Toll-free telephone numbers became so popular that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was forced to issue a new prefix (888) in anticipation of the exhaustion of all possible 800 numbers. The 800 prefix ran out in 1996, but the new 888 prefix lasted only two years beyond that before becoming nearly depleted itself. As a result, the FCC imposed a new plan capping the number of toll-free numbers that carriers could allocate on a weekly basis. These measures slowed the distribution of the numbers, but analysts expect that the FCC will introduce a string of new toll-free prefixes (877, 866, etc.) over the coming years to accommodate demand.

ADVANTAGES OF TOLL-FREE NUMBERS

Toll-free service offers several advantages to small business owners that traditional toll phone service cannot provide. First and foremost, a toll-free telephone number makes your company more accessible to clients, customers, employees, and business associates. It enhances a business's image as a successful, professional company, and many experts contend that it shows clients that customer service is an important component of the business's operating philosophy. Additionally, toll-free service can help lower business costs if you are currently accepting collect calls or are finding it expensive to keep in touch with the home office while on the road. Lastly, toll-free service usually details incoming calls on your statement, with names and numbers allowing easier customer tracking.

Obtaining a toll-free number is a relatively simple process. Consumers can simply request one from their local or long-distance phone company. The cost of securing and maintaining a toll-free line will vary depending on geographic region and the amount of calls that are transmitted through the line. Some small business owners who request vanity toll-free numbers have reported tremendous success with them, but other experts counsel small business owners to avoid vanity numbers altogether, saying that customers may become frustrated by being forced to hunt and peck their way through an alphabetic toll-free number. Firms that do choose to secure a vanity number can eliminate much of this frustration by advertising both the spelled-out and numeric versions of the number.

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