February 7, 2014

Are toll-free numbers obsolete?

We were meeting with the customer-facing team of a new client, conducting one of our InsightStorming™ sessions, to explore perceptions of the brand, prospect demographics and psychographics, competitors, market dynamics, and messaging.
As usual, our team learned a lot from their team. Practical insights that will help to shape an effective brand narrative.*

One interesting morsel that popped up in the middle of the dialog provoked us to reexamine a marketing tactic almost a half-century old: the toll-free number.

Those of us old enough to remember May 2, 1967 understand why newly-invented 1-800 numbers were so appealing. Long-distance calls were expensive enough to stir up anxiety. It seemed extravagant or reckless to make a call without watching the clock. The new numbers began springing up immediately – they were a clear, easily understood, wildly popular customer benefit. They went viral.

Fast-forward 47 years, and see evolution at work. A large percentage of today’s consumers have phone service that treats all calls the same, whether local or cross-country. Some plans even include calls to Belgium, Brazil or Bhutan the same as calling your neighbor. The clock-watching anxiety vanished when the expense became trivial or nonexistent.

In counterpoint, the perception of 800 numbers is evolving: what was a clear benefit may now be regarded (as our client group participant pointed out) with some suspicion. “I always think that toll-free means I’m going to a call center in Bangalore.” It seems one sort of anxiety is being replaced with another.

The divergent perceptions are age-related, of course. Older people are more likely to value (or at least not question) toll-free as a benefit. Younger people, not so much.

So, the practical insight we extract from this? If your organization wants to be trusted as authentic, or at least concerned-enough-to-answer-locally, then you should offer a local number. Instead of the toll-free number? No! Many of your prospects remember 1967. Make the choice available. Today, it makes sense to offer a local number in addition to, not in place of toll free.

*If you’re curious about the process and value of our InsightStorming™ half-day workshops, give us a call. 312.836.0050. Hmmm. Not toll-free.