TELEMARKETING: Talking Telephone Numbers - Customised phone numbers or ’golden numbers’ have become a valuable telemarketing tool. Meg Carter reviews the latest developments, from portable freephone numbers to ’alpha numerics&rsq

Bupa, First Direct and Forte have learned through experience that a handful of digits can be a powerful branding tool. Take Forte’s freephone booking number: 0800-40 40 40. Or First Direct’s 0800-24 24 24. They’re easy to remember and can even be catchy and relevant - Bupa’s dental careline number is 0800-230 230 (’tooth hurty’, ’tooth hurty’).

Bupa, First Direct and Forte have learned through experience that a

handful of digits can be a powerful branding tool. Take Forte’s

freephone booking number: 0800-40 40 40. Or First Direct’s 0800-24 24

24. They’re easy to remember and can even be catchy and relevant -

Bupa’s dental careline number is 0800-230 230 (’tooth hurty’, ’tooth

hurty’).



It’s hardly surprising, then, that since these ’golden numbers’ were

launched in the 80s, an industry has sprung up supplying customised

numbers and a range of call services which have all been eagerly pounced

on by telemarketers. Growing demand and limited capacity, however, now

look likely to significantly restrict future opportunities.



’The growth of the 0800 number has been incredible,’ Tanya Walsh, BT’s

head of marketing for in-bound services, says. ’It’s not just about

having a golden number but about what 0800 says about your company -

your willingness to add consumer value.’ Increased demand contributed to

the recent decision to introduce an extra seventh digit to 0800, 0990

and 0345 numbers. The seventh digit will eventually require all

companies using these phone numbers to alter promotional and product

information to accommodate the change.



Telephone numbers are allocated to 40 or so different telephone service

providers - the largest of which is BT - by the telecoms industry

watchdog, Oftel. Until July 1997, BT had a monopoly on freephone numbers

with an 0800 prefix, local rate (0345) and national rate (0990) numbers.

Today, different numbers are owned by different telecoms companies. This

has limited marketers’ choice of telephone numbers for marketing and

other customer communications campaigns, claims Michael Teggerdine,

managing director of Golden Number Bank, an independent agency which

leases such numbers to businesses.



’It’s good news for a company like ours but bad news for the

telemarketing business,’ he says. This is because the best golden

numbers have long been taken. And recently announced plans to increase

the quantity of such numbers available by altering the freephone,

national and local rate prefixes will only exacerbate the situation.



To extend the range of numbers available to telemarketers, Oftel began

introducing a new generation of seven-digit numbers last June. It also

started the phased introduction of new prefixes, less well known to UK

consumers. So, for example, 0800 - which commands greatest recognition

and clearest understanding by British consumers - will be joined by

0808, 0807, 0806 and so on, depending on the service provider. It will

inevitably take time for callers to recognise that these numbers are

free.



’Golden numbers are valuable because you don’t have to show your ads as

many times to generate a response,’ Teggerdine says. ’But it’s difficult

to see how anyone can be inventive with the numbers available today as

0800 numbers remain the most familiar.’ Eighty per cent of UK companies’

customer services, enquiries or support lines are now 0800 numbers paid

for by the company concerned, according to BT. Thirty five per cent of

the population makes regular use of the special numbers and 27 per cent

claims to use 0800 numbers regularly. The industry predicts that, by the

end of 2000, the percentage of the UK population using special numbers

will have increased by 60 per cent.



One improvement has been the introduction of number portability. Until

last summer, if a company wanted to switch telecoms network providers

for whatever reason, it meant sacrificing hard-won numbers along with

existing stationery, marketing materials and even advertising

campaigns.



Number portability allows numbers to be retained, explains Walsh. Even

so, it does not get around plans to introduce the seventh digit to

existing numbers.



In spite of this, moves continue to upgrade the telephone services

available to marketers. Historically, each country has its own freephone

number - even in the US the 800 code is different from the UK’s.

International freephone numbers were launched in the early 90s. Last

year, BT unveiled Universal Freefone - a product popular among

multinational companies, although it has yet to gain universal appeal.

’The product is a single, freephone number which can be used on every

piece of promotional material, packaging or merchandise anywhere in the

world,’ Walsh says.



’For global brands, it promises the ultimate in international

response.’



The numbers business has now passed into its second phase. Walsh adds:

’In the early days, it was transaction-based and focused on customers

phoning in to buy. Increasingly, we are seeing companies using these

telephone numbers for a more diverse range of customer services:

out-bound and in-bound calling; product information; complaints and

customer care.’ Another area ripe for future development is ’alpha

numerics’, where numbers and letters are linked on a telephone keypad.

This is a big business in the US, where consumers might dial, for

example, 1-800 FLOWERS to contact a flower delivery company.



However, the UK telephone system and its customers are not set up to

exploit alpha numerics fully. There is a lack of standardised keypads,

for a start, as the advent of STD codes in the 60s rendered superfluous

the letters which once were standard on telephone dials.



Although tricky, alpha numerics can work in the UK and some believe they

could provide a more powerful communication for some brands,

particularly generic services. British Midland, for example, has 0345 I

FLY BM, translated numerically as 0345 435 926. Others counter with the

claim that a choice array of digits is more appropriate for a strong

brand. For the time being, the canny are investing in both.



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