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1-800-buy-fast: competition has cut costs and added features to "800" telephone services.

Following the divestiture of AT&T in 1982, toll-free telephone service has undergone a metamorphosis.

Competition between vendors offering innovative features and lower prices has transformed what was a luxury only large corporations could afford to an almost ubiquitous service in the business sector. MCI Telecommunications, for example, boasts that 80 percent of its long-distance customers purchase "800" telephone services.

Indiana is served by more than a dozen long-distance carriers, most offering 800 service. The obvious advantage for businesses is that competition between vendors drives down the cost. The typical installation fee has plunged from several hundred dollars to about $20. And the monthly charges have fallen to the point that they're similar to regular long-distance rates.

If low rates won't snag new customers, the multifarious 800-service features might. The basic toll-free in-bound calling serive is, for all practical purposes, obsolete. Blocking, routing, caller identification, calling-pattern analysis and intricate billing procedures have enhanced the basic service.

The first decision to be made by a customer contemplating 800 service is whether he or she nees a dedicated telephone line or a switch-over line. Dedicated lines are installed specifically for 800-service calls. The switch-over 800 serive operates on a regular business line. Dedicated lines are more expensive, but are recommended for larger companies with a high volume of 800 calls to organize phone traffic.

Among the most innovative features of 800 services are call blocking and call routing. Companies use these features to control telephone traffic, so that incoming calls are routed to the location that can serve them most efficiently. Tritel Communications, which serves northwest Indiana, offers a blocking system known as "call tailoring." The system accepts only designated telephone traffic from regions the customer wants to serve, such as calls from specific states or area codes. All other traffic is blocked, and costs are cut considerably because unprofitable calls are not accepted.

Another boost to cost-effectiveness is rerouting, where calls are directed between multiple locations, depending upon the time of day, day of the week, time of the year and where the call originated. For example, US Sprint Communications can direct calls so that after-hours calls to an Indianapolis office are automatically rerouted to a 24-hour San Francisco office.

MCI offers a route-related 800 feature called dialed-number identification service. DNIS is for users with multiple 800 numbers that all ring into the same location; for example, one number may be for sales calls, one for service. The 800 number that was dialed appears on a digital display on a special telephone. With DNIS, the person answering the phone is given some idea what the call is regarding.

Perhaps of greatest concern for 800 users are rates and billing procedures. Most 800 vendors charge a minimal installation charge, a flat rate each month and a per-second rate for each call. The rate is usually between 15 and 18 cents per minute and is figured in six-second increments. The rate depends upon the call's point of origin and the time of day. Some companies, such as LDDS, offer 800 service on regular business lines and charge no installation fee and no monthly service fee. Instead, a flat per-minute rate is charged for calls from anywhere in the United States.

These services are great, but how do businesses know they are working? Some companies offer specialized management reports that can include an analysis of calling patterns, the frequency and number of incoming calls and phone traffic engineering suggestions. Others, such as Indianapolis-based One Call Communications, provide monthly billing statements with call origination detail, so the customer can analyze and chart his own traffic. Such services usually must be requested, and an extra fee often is assessed.

Other amenities provided for 800-service customers range from directory listings to vanity numbers. Indiana Bell, for example, provides two complimentary directory listings for all 800-service customers, and an unlimited number of paid listings. AT&T also provides directory listings for its patrons, and has compiled a national 800 directory that it supplies to all its customers.

Many businesses request what are known as vanity numbers--where the letters on the keypad spell something, such as 1-800/CALL NOW. Vanity numbers are quite popular because they are easily remebered. Most 800 vendors offer a specific vanity number if it is not already assigned, but often a company can wait months or even years before the one it wants becomes available.

Whatever the features, 800 services are becoming increasingly important for businesses. The reason is obvious: customer service.

"What's driving 800 service is service," says Mark Trierweiler, division public relations manager for AT&T. Having an 800 number sends a message to customers that they are important, he says. For longtime customers who have problems or complaints, it sends the message that a company wants to continue serving them. For new customers it sends a message that a business is accessible and wants their business--enough that the call will be on the company's dime.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Curtis Magazine Group, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Baughman, Nena
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:May 1, 1991
Previous Article:Office products update: Indiana vendors highlight the hottest technologies for the office.
Next Article:Economic development around the state: an update for northwest Indiana, South Bend, Fort Wayne, Lafayette, Indianapolis and Evansville.

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