For any consumer-driven businesses, one of the keys to success is making sure that customers can contact you whenever they need to. Jammed phone lines, poor connections or a substantial charge for the consumer to call your business can have a significant financial impact, especially on any business that operates on a national or international market. While recent innovations in business communications have seen options such as the virtual PBX and teleconferencing become extremely popular, there are several traditional methods which can still produce substantial results for a company. One of these is the tried-and-true toll free phone number.
The concept of a toll free number is simple. Instead of the customer having to pay to call a company they would like to do business with, a toll free phone number allows them to access information and representatives of a business for free. The company, meanwhile, absorbs the cost of the call. For many years, that alone was one of the stumbling blocks preventing businesses from attaching toll free phone numbers to their ads. Initially, costs ranged between 15 and 20 cents per minute, which was far greater than most companies could bear. Today, these same numbers can cost less than 5 cents per minute to use, substantially reducing their financial impact. Many small businesses can now even afford to operate multiple toll free phone number lines, allowing an even greater range of service.
The original toll free phone service began in 1960, as a replacement for the collect call, but soon moved into the hands of private company AT&T in 1967. The original system required many operators, switch boards and “trunk lines” in order to operate properly, and it could take weeks for a new phone number to be activated. In 1978, Roy Weber patented the second-generation 800 phone number line, which is the system still in place today. It was issued to AT&T in 1980. As 800 number services grew, several large corporations, most notably AT&T and MCI, became the front runners. While many businesses subscribed to this service, they were locked into a contract with their provider and had to change their numbers if they wished to switch. In 1993, the FCC ruled that toll free phone numbers had to be portable, going with the user if they changed companies.
This greatly increased the viability of the toll free phone number as a business tool. Many companies began buying “vanity” numbers, which spelled out words or phrases and were far more easily remembered by customers. The popularity of 800 numbers grew so quickly that 866, 877 and 888 were also all designated as toll free. Businesses that were able to purchase an easily-remembered phone number saw a sharp spike in business.
Today, many businesses benefit from having one or more toll free phone numbers, as they lend an air of credibility to the venture. Customers understand the function of an 800 number, and generally equate the business that has one with success and capability. These numbers have been shown to raise the profile of a business in the public eye. While it is still possible to obtain a vanity number, most have been purchased and the FCC does not want companies selling their numbers to each other, making finding one problematic. However, with the addition of new prefixes, new combinations are becoming available at a steady rate.
Aside from public perception, a toll free phone number can benefit a business simply by being a reliable point of first contact. 800 numbers can be tied in to virtual PBX systems and lead to voice menus, answering machines and of course real people. The numbers can also be relayed to a call center, as in the case of a hotel chain or banking institution.