It’s very easy to fall into the trap of believing that what works in one country will work in another especially when both countries share the same language.
A case in point is toll free phone numbers. In the USA nearly every business uses a toll free number. And the reason is not hard to fathom. In such a large country most calls are long distance. For instance, it’s nearly twice as far from New York to San Francisco as it is from London to Moscow. So if you want customers to call you, making it easy with a toll free number is not just a good idea but pretty well essential.
An American setting up business in the United Kingdom might think that a toll free phone number is just as essential as it is at home. Yet this is not necessarily the case. For one thing, the UK is only a small country. From the south west tip at Land’s End to the north west tip at John O’Groats is just 868 miles. That’s not very big when you think that some Australians live 200 miles from their nearest neighbour. In fact, you could drop the UK into the Hudson Bay and lose it.
Yet one of the noticeable traits of UK inhabitants is how parochial they are. Traditionally they avoid doing business with companies at the other end of the country. That makes a free phone number a good option since it hides the geographical location of the user. But even though UK free phone numbers have been available for decades, there are many situations when bearing the cost of a large number of free phone calls is not viable. In the mid-nineties, British Telecom came up with a new solution.
BT decided to tackle this problem by introducing the 0990 number prefix that, unlike normal phone numbers, was not related to any particular place so callers would not know to where they were calling. Callers were, and still are, charged at BT’s National Rate – the rate you pay for making a call outside your local area, which is 8p/minute daytime, 4p/minute evenings and 2p/minute weekends.
To test if the public would respond to this idea, BT arranged for Tango to use one of these new numbers for a competition advertised on TV. Later when the regulator Oftel (whose role has now been absorbed into Ofcom) changed phone numbers to eleven digits and ratified prefixes, the Non-Geographic National Rate was assigned the prefix 0870.
The popularity of using 0870 numbers quickly increased with lots of national companies keen to use them especially because they have the added incentive of paying the user a royalty if they generate a high number of call minutes. Typically, royalty rebates are available from about 1p to 3p per minute dependent on call volumes. And the incentive to use these numbers is further increased by the fact that 0870 numbers are generally provided free of charge by telephone companies, although memorable numbers attract a premium.
A glance through any newspaper will reveal just how many UK companies use 0870 numbers and, conversely, how few rely on 0800 free phone numbers.
There have been problems with some large national companies apparently prepared to annoy their customers by not answering calls promptly and dealing inefficiently with enquiries. This has prompted several Ofcom investigations into misuse. Nevertheless, businesses both large and small have taken to 0870 numbers in a big way and, for the foreseeable future, they seem here to stay.