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Toll Free is Cool Again!

Click for: Toll-Free Texting!


The vast majority of North American businesses continue to drive customers to the web and see little reason for toll-free numbers.

Yet, this view is rapidly changing as savvy companies realize that people reward their business to companies with real customer service. With that, Toll free has become cool again -- and that was the theme for last year's Toll Free Summit, hosted by Vanity International.

For example, an ATM is no substitute for a real teller nor is a website a substitute for a business professional. It's Self-Service vs. Customer Service. And even the most stellar reputation is no substitute for a human connection -- especially when things go wrong or a frustrating question goes unanswered.
 

It's not just nice to have real customer service, it's good business. Closure rates are higher and you might even get a premium price for your product or service.

For example, former CEO of Hotels.com David Litman stated that his experience showed that booking rates were 26 times higher by phone; not 26% higher, but 2,600% higher! His new venture, Getaroom.com, offers their best deals by phone to capitalize on this fact.

Southwest airlines offers "lower fares on Southwest.com," but that does not deter customers from paying higher fares -- sometime $70-100 higher -- for the convenience of booking with live operators, unannoyed, I might add, by the in-your-face "convenience fees" charged by other airlines.

To find out more about these and other toll-free strategies, call for a FREE consultation with Loren at 1-800-GET-RESULTS (800-438-7378), or select the "Toll Free Numbers" link above and fill in the form. We'll get right back with you! 

Anyone who attended The Toll Free Summits in 2009, 2011, or 2013 may attend the Hybrid Telephony Summit in Chicago, this September. Just call 1-800-Get-Results (800-438-7378). If you did not attend last one of the Summit events, please have your referral call to clear you in. See criteria here.    

 

 

 

 

Wednesday
Jul302014

One Customer Experience

Toll Free texting as a game change? Well yes, but not just yet.

My gut feel this year was to seek a single, integrated phone/text app to use for toll-free texting. It just didn’t seem workable to have 2-3 separate apps for phone, text, and chat. Thus far, I haven’t found anyone that really gets this— and permits us to private label.

This week, my concerns were validated in an executive brief, Ending the Multichannel Frustration,” by Genesys Systems, a global multi-channel customer experience and contact center solution leader.

Genesys’ experience across various channels confirms the need to integrate our toll free texting app into one coherent interface. Here are key excerpts from this brief:

  • Continuity of Customer Experience: "Customers expect consistent, value-added answers across all media types. They also expect to be able to start an interaction using one medial type and complete it on another without having to restart the conversation.”
  • Ubiquitous Access to Customer Data: "Customer service agents do not have access to full customer data, product data, or records of prior interactions. They also use a number of disconnected applications when servicing their customers, and they struggle to find the right and relevant answers to a customer’s request."
  • App Integration: "Customer service technologies are at the heart of the solution for providing optimal customer experiences."

While I believe they got all this right, Genesys does not have the product for us. They are focused on desktop soft phones, the kind used by stationary call center reps. In my view, small business clients are more mobile and need iPad, iPhone, and Android enabled phones.

 

I’m equally impressed with the Shoretel iPad docking station. The concept is desktop phone you can “grab a go.” With such a dock, users can seemlessly go mobile whenever desired. Unfortunately, Shoretel’s iPad dock is proprietary and their position is to not work with anyone under 50 seats, so they have limited interest in a market of small retailers with a few employees each.

Finally, we need stability. In my view, our efforts should be centered on IOS devices. Although that may limit client choice, exposure to malware is minimized.

Tell me your thoughts?

Wednesday
Apr092014

Toll Free Texting

Toll-Free Texting* is a game changer!

Now, toll-free numbers can both call and text. Texting is often the preferred way for clients to communicate, yet employees prefer not to use their personal text numbers to interact with clients. 

The Wall Street Journal reported this month on the rise of "Two-phone Employees," motivate by both privacy concerns and the need to keep work-life in balance. Since toll-free texting is done from a software interface, employees can now keep their private numbers private!

We've identified apps that can access work from a private smart phone-- then be shut down on demand!

Call us at 1-800-Get-Rest (800-438-7378) and we'll show you how to make this happen!

* The term "toll-free" has become a bit of a misnomer, as only a voice call from a land-line is actually "toll-free." Well, there's a disclaimer there too. Wireless carriers bill on a per-minute basis regardless of whether the call is to a local or "toll-free" number and standard text message rates still apply

Friday
Nov162012

The Future of Toll-Free

As we look back over the past four decades at what made toll-free great, there were three prime movers:

  • Personal service
  • Free Calling
  • Instant commerce (relative to the alternatives of its day)

When long distance calls were expensive, "free calling" was accomplished through reverse billing -- the receiving party paid toll -- hence the name "toll-free." Essentially, merchants enticed customers to engage with them by offering "toll free" calls, which they gladly paid for in exchange for potential business.

That was also at a time when the only quick, personal way to place an order was by phone, averting impersonal catalog ordering by mail and later by fax.

Today, two of these prime movers are gone. "Instant commerce" is best accomplished via a website and calling is so cheap in North America that the benefit of "free calling" is incidental. Clearly the term "toll-free" is antiquated. Even if cell phones became truly "toll-free," that would have little impact now that even wireless calls are just pennies a minute. 

Of the three original prime movers, only personal service endures to this day, but that's a very big deal. 

Today's darling, Internet commerce, remains impersonal and self-guided, despite the addition of time-shared chats and the cutesy welcome videos by actors who seem to walk across the screen.

While it's generally quicker to order on-line-- partly because you can dispense with the pleasantries of a live conversation-- you have to know exactly what you want!

Even your questions are typically self-guided, as you are left to hunt your own answers among the FAQs or in some "knowledge base." In effect, websites are little more than a real-time versions of a 1960's catalog with dynamic, visual content.

 

 

In this scene from Star Trek IV, Scotty, an spaceship engineer from the future, first encounters a modern-day computer -- and talks to it!? In that instant he discovered what we've all but ignored: there's nobody "in there." 

The Inernet is just a big vending machine! Indeed, only someone from outer space would expect personal service from a computer or, by extension, a website!

In contrast, the expectation of a phone call is that you'll connect with and get personalized service from a live, human being-- and when we don't, we're frustrated!

Think about it. Would you ever say out loud to a customer: "Hey, I don't have time you. Go talk to my computer"-- especially now that you realize they are sure to have a Scotty moment? No way! 

Yet, that's precisely what we're doing when we just advertise our web address and not our toll-free numbers. When we need real human interaction, we all know what to do: pick up the phone!

Ally Bank has made great fun of this reality by portraying competitive bank websites as soulless robots, while they offer real human service, 24/7 by phone, e.g. "A machine can't give you what a person can." ... And that's precisely why toll-free creates an enduring, competitive advantage. 

Human interaction is not just a luxury; it's savvy business too. For example:

  • The founders of Hotels.com discovered their closure rates were 26 times higher, or 2,600%, by phone than by Internet, and built their new company Get A Room.com around that fact.
  • Zappos built their company on personal service. The fact that they sell shoes is almost incidental. Their real product is personal service. 

These are not success stories form the 1980's; these are a "reality check" from the post-Internet age.

The phone-- not the Internet -- is the high ground of remote sales and customer service, because we can convey more of ourselves by voice than we will ever express on a web page—aside from that visual thing!

Okay, so we humans are amazing, but is that all there is? Personal service? Will the Internet just envelope that too with the eventual addition of video telephony?

New Prime Movers

Beyond Personal Service, three new prime movers have emerged over the decades since toll-free was launched:

  • Universal Appeal
  • Caller Number
  • Privacy by Law

The first new prime mover in toll-free is universal appeal.  

Universal Appeal
The proliferation of countless new area codes has made the universality of toll-free numbers a primary advantage, especially the more familiar 800 and 888 numbers. 
 
In any given location, multiple area codes and overlays have been deployed with a confusing array of exchanges in various stages of functionality. Just look at hodgepodge of New York area codes!
 
In addition, when you use a local number its area codes will always be tied to some geographical area and, for example, 212 will remain associated with New York; 312 with Chicago, 202 with Washington DC; 310 with LA; and many, many others for decades to come. 

 

In contrast, when you advertise toll-free, you are anyplace and everyplace at once! Many areas require 10-digit dialing anyway, so using one, toll-free number gives you universality.

Caller Number  

The second prime mover in the renaissance of toll free is automatic number identification (ANI, pronounced like “Anne”). Think of ANI as un-blockable Caller ID, which facilitates a very significant feature of toll-free, number identity.

When toll-free was conceived, ANI was logged in the network and batched into a monthly call report to reconcile billing, but over the years these systems have evolved to where number identity has become available in real-time.

On toll calls, Caller ID is blocked at the network entry point, as only the primary carrier needs to know the caller’s number for billing purposes, e.g. think of your monthly cellular bill. Beyond that, callers are anonymous.... Or, are they?

In contrast, when the called party pays toll, anonymous calling is prohibited and ANI travels with the call -- even when Caller ID is blocked at the source. The host carrier “sees” the ANI of every call placed to its toll-free numbers, regardless of the unique path the call takes through the network among the hundreds of carrier participants.

If you want to see ANI in action, there’s a rogue app -- currently banned by Apple -- that unmasks anonymous calls, called TrapCall. It works by forwarding anonymous calls -- calls with Caller ID blocked -- to a toll-free number so that TrapCall can expose the ANI. The call is then returned to your phone unmasked-- with the real phone number revealed.

Like any powerful tool, ANI can be used for good or evil. Real-time ANI has allowed two powerful services to emerge: call routing and caller lookup.

Company’s like Telesmart and Paetec (formally McLeod) use ANI to route calls on a granular level. For example, calls can be routed in real-time – with continuous updates – on DMA, county, area code, or ZIP code, using the geo-location of the callers number.

Beyond routing, the number identity can often be cross-referenced with public – and not so public – records, which can often match the caller’s actual identity, i.e. caller look-up. Most routing services allow for this, but companies like Who’s Calling specialize in caller identity as a sales tool.

Auto dealerships, for example, may instantly learn your name, address, and demographics as you call in on one of their toll-free numbers. No such service is available when you advertise local numbers. This toll-free feature alone creates a powerful business advantage.

 

Privacy by Law

Finally, we're convinced that privacy protection will emerge as the most important prime mover. 

Number identity is not caller identity, unless the caller is already known to be associated with a number used in public records or in previously shared data. Even then, Number Identity is only available to the called party, not to 3rd parties, the public, or other marketers.

In the on-line world, this would equate to nothing more than a search for a user name associate with a "from address." Yet, unlike the on-line world, the contents of your phone conversations is protected by law.

Thanks to a 1920’s bootlegger and a 1960’s bookie, the right to telephonic privacy is now settled law; your lines cannot be wiretapped without a court order; your phone records cannot be disclosed to 3rd parties; and your conversation cannot be recorded without your consent.

The PBS documentry "Whispering Wires" documents how a police lieutenant, turned bootlegger, paved the way to telephonic privacy.

 

Watch Whispering Wires The Good Bootlegger on PBS. See more from Prohibition.

 

This protection was extended in the 1960's to conversations held in a public phone booth when, simply by closing the door, you have constitutionally protected right of privacy. Even your own phone company is required to ask for permission to use your phone records to discuss service upgrades – the very records they keep for you!

And remember TrapCall, the rogue service that unmasked Caller ID? The legal issue appears to be that the caller has an expectation of privacy when they block their Caller ID and dial a local number -- and that privacy is lost when calls are re-routed to TrapCall.

In contrast, all the legal protections we're come to expect on a phone call are generally absent when you visit a website, email, or submit data into on-line form. Whatever privacy you may be afforded is by policy, not by law. Websites like Facebook, Google, and others are constructing dossiers on their users for marketing purposes.

The Federal laws that protect privacy on a phone call may be bypassed with one-party consent; "consent" by the offending websites themselves has been ruled sufficient to track any and all visitors!

On-line, the major frustration going forward is not your privacy but that the biggest offenders -- those data aggregrators with the most market power -- will not pool private data, resulting in on-line profiles being kept like "walled gardens."

The expectation of privacy is at the crossroads of two different worlds. One dominated by privacy, the telephony world, where you only disclose personal data on a need-to-know basis; One dominated by identity stripping, the world wide web (WWW), where your personal data is methodically collected from every action and reconstructed into a persona used to create ad spam and even restrict or enhance what's visible to you on-line.

In one world, disclosure to 3rd parties would be a shocking violation of your privacy: “Hey look at this stupid ad! Why are the sending me deals on Pampers. OMG!.. They know I’m pregnant!!??

In the other world, an ever-present Big Brother: “Hey look at this stupid ad. Why are the sending me deals on Pampers when they know I like Huggies!”

Facebook, for example, is like a popular nightclub. Rather cool. Well populated. In 2012, it may be the in place to be!

Yet, who would hang out in real nightclub with dozens of cameras in every room, with every moment being recorded and personified; paparazzi and friends everywhere, posting photos in real time of your every move? Of course, if you are seeking the limelight, Facebook is the main stage. But when you're seeking privacy, there's nowhere to hide.

Websites like Facebook only remain popular, in our view, because there is nowhere else to go that is functionally equivalent with superior privacy protections. Currently, loss of privacy is the price you pay to play on these "free" websites.

The Missing Link

So, does toll-free have a future, or will it remain a niche media forever, like radio has become after the advent of TV? Are the costs of human interaction just too high to create a competitive advantage? Will there be a return to privacy or should we just "get over it," as Scott McNealy famously said. 

There’s only one thing conspicuously missing from the telephony world; one thing that would put 1-800-Flowers on par with 1-800-Flowers.com: visual interaction. While you can talk to real human beings when you call, you still can’t see a thing!

So, what happens next will be amazing!

Stay tuned...

 

Thursday
Mar012012

Why "The Domain" Still Matters

I just returned from DomainFest, a first-class event put on by Oversee.Net each year in Los Angeles that focuses on Internet addressing.
 
The hot topic for discussion this year was the new, generic top level domains (TLD), as they are known -- up to 3,000 of them -- which are set to be reveled this spring and released in the next year,  generic TLD's like .law, .shop. .nyc, as well as proprietary ones like .ibm, .att., and others, so long as the applicant holds the trademark.
 
Domains tie into toll-free numbers by way of Magnetic Branding -- matching vanity toll-free numbers with Internet domains. Some well-known examples include 1-800-Progressive with Progressive.com, 1-800-Verizon with Verizon.com, 1-800-Priceline with Priceline.com, and even 1-800-Got-Junk with GotJunk.com. A great brand should be like Rome, only all roads lead to you!
 
What matters most is what endures in the minds of consumers. We all know that 800 numbers are considered the standard and everything else -- while functionally equivalent -- is considered second best. It's typical to hear someone say "My 800 numbers is 877-NXX-XXXX," using "800" as the generic name for toll-free.
 
The same is true for Internet domains. When someone asks, "Did you get THE DOMAIN?," they mean the .com domain of the the product or company name. "The domain" will always refer the the .com version regardless of how many TLD's are made available, just like the common reframe, "My 800 number is...." has endure despite having four other options.
 
Where other TLD's have been rolled out over months, if not years, these new TLD's will be released en masse. Releasing thousand of domains head to head will be a grand experiment in commerce.  
 
Movie producers worry about blockbuster status when just a few other movies debut at this same time, so just imagine the affects of having thousands released at once. How does any one of them get noticed? Obscurity and consumer confusion is guaranteed and, given the massive investment to authorize each new domain-- $180,000 just for the application -- many may fail from lack of adoption.
 
So how does one stand out in this brave new world? 
 
Simple. 
 
Smart maketers will go with what's well understood by the masses. Magnetic Brands like 1-800-Progressive and Progressive.com need no further explanation; They include an 800 number and a .com address. 
 
That's what consumers know -- toll-free 800 numbers and .com Internet addresses-- and there is not a domain thing anyone can do to change that.
Thursday
Dec152011

FCC-- Workshop 2

The Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) in Transition

The second of two workshops on the PSTN in Transition was held Wednesday, December 14, 2011 at the Federal Communication Commission, 9am Eastern. A replay should be available soon.  

"We're not taking away Grandma's phone," declared the opening speaker. The idea here is that we should refer to the transition as "rebirth and renewal" rather than the sunset of the PSTN. Don't scare Grandma! 

IP Telephony matters. These are the clients of our toll free services. Yet, even of those who have adopted VOIP, the vast majority still use conventional touch tone phones as their interface. 

The reality of the IP world in place today may best be demonstrated by this FCC webcast itself. During the course of Wednesday's six-hour broadcast, the picture froze or disconnected every 10-15 minutes and there was constant buzz in the audio -- even before the sessions began. Was this due to our IP provider? My computer? Maybe the FCC uplink? Who knows, and who would you call if you really needed quality of service?

One speaker likened the PSTN transition to a Quarter-Life Crisis; where adolescence ends and adult responsibility begins. Another noted that social values apply - privacy, public safety, disability access, etc. -- regardless of what technology is deployed. Another lamented that if we can't first agree on values, we will never agree on policy.

"Transitions take time," stated another who offered a striking example: The last hand-cranked telephone was not decommissioned until 1983, decades after it was declared "dead." One speaker called into question the viability of enum as the basis of future addressing, given the necessity of universal adoption (More of that and it's implications to toll free numbers soon).

Despite one speakers observation that the PSTN transition is 75% complete, where we really are may best be summed up by an expression of gratitude at the end of today's session: "Thank you for helping us to begin our planning." 

Sit back. Take a breath. The planning has just begun. Toll Free Numbers are going be serving a parallel universe for quite some time.

See Part 1 Here!