Using the phone to sell or market a product or service is relatively cheap to try. Also, it's easy to stop or change a telemarketing program for any reason. So whether you're doing the calling in-house or hiring a service to do it for you, you can afford to experiment. To get the creative juices flowing, here are some ideas from Steve Idelman of Idelman Telemarketing Inc.:

* Introduce mail with the phone. You can call people to ask them to watch for material you've mailed -- "Look for a white envelope with an orange stripe" -- or you can ask their permission to send it. Mailing only to willing recipients saves postage and gives you a better qualified lead.

* Follow up mail with the phone. The mail piece itself should include a response vehicle -- something to send back or a number to call -- so you're not relying on the follow-up telemarketing call alone to induce action. But the follow-up phone call can double your response margin, claims Idelman, and may increase it as much as tenfold.

* Conduct a market survey. Use the phone to learn what features or benefits customers value in the product or service you propose to sell. Or you can use the phone to test a price. On the initial call, an $11 price point might bring you more revenue than a $9 one. But if on confirmation half the $11 buyers cancel, compared with 20% of the $9 buyers, then, Idelman says, you can deduce that $9 is probably the better price.

* Conduct an after-market survey to find out whether you met your customers' expectations. If you do that during a market test, Idelman says, "you'll get a good indication of what your long-term market success will be."

* Use the phone to talk to your distribution network. You can introduce new products over the phone, tell distributors about promotions, or handle routine inventory replacement.

* Qualify leads for your field sales force. By asking the right questions telemarketers can help your salespeople save time. But if you're going to have a telemarketing staff and a field sales staff working together, Idelman suggests, you should involve the field salespeople in designing the phone program.

-- Tom Richman

Dial 800 for Your Nearest Store

Dial 800-4PRECOR and no matter where you're calling from, your call gets connected to the fitness-equipment manufacturer's local retailer. You used to get an operator in Precor's Bothell, Wash., headquarters, who would direct you to the closest retailer and mail you any material you requested. Retailers, if they wished, could follow up by phoning the callers back. "The difference is that now we're getting prospects the minute they've decided to act," says Rob Jacobs, owner of The Walking Center, in Beverly Hills, Calif., which carries the Precor line. "That's when you want to talk to them."

To turn its national 800 number into a local call, $55-million Precor uses InstaLink, a service sold by Applied Telematics Inc. ATI charges clients for each call taken through its InstaLink system; the amount depends on the length of the call. The caller doesn't talk to an operator working from a script but to a local salesperson who knows the product. "The service is really about generating more sales," says ATI's president, Ian Michel. To learn more about ATI's services, call ATI, in Wayne, Pa., at (215) 687-3701. n

-- Tom Richman