Dialing for Data
In the babel of "900" telephone voices ranging from prayer to prurience, a few services deliver bona fide business information, accessible either by touch-tone dialing or through operators. Inc. discovered that some were more accessible than others. A sampling:
* Pitney-Bowes Postal Information Hotline (900-896-POST; $1.50/minute; accessible 24 hours, seven days). Useful, not overly promotional, and reasonably priced. Via touch-tone, hotline disseminates data on postal-rate changes and offers potentially money-saving advice in a variety of business areas, including international and business-reply mailings. Looks up zip codes for given locations. Offers a free booklet.
* TRW Business-to-Business Credit Report Service (900-884-4TRW; $28/call; accessible 24 hours, seven days, but processes orders between 11:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., EST). Quirky; can be costly. Caller gets three touch-tone options, one of which is to receive a credit check on a specific company (others are of limited value). Caller must be prepared to supply complete address and phone number of company in question. Inaccurate or laggardly touch-pad operation may result in abrupt disconnection and a $28 loss. To vendor's credit: if you enter incomplete information, TRW rep calls back. Completion of process results in mailed or faxed credit report.
* Business Infoline (900-896-0000; $3/first minute, $1.50/ minute thereafter; accessible 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., EST). Efficient, personable, surprisingly useful. Operator accesses 4,800 yellow-page directories -- 13 million businesses nationally. Printed listings are fleshed out, with business description, president's name, estimated sales, and how many years the business has been in the yellow pages. Came up with accurate info on the small operation Inc. tested it with.
* Journalphone (900-568-7625; 95¢/minute; accessible 24 hours, seven days). Recorded voices eat up time merely explaining the complicated format, as devised by Dow Jones. Once you're into the system, you can request stock prices (15-minute delay from actual price quote), corporate news, business updates, sports scores, and weather reports. (Dow Jones also sells Dowphone, a subscription service that bills according to how frequently you use it, which gives quotes in real time. For information call 800-345-NEWS.)
* U.S. Consensus's Main Street America Tel-A-Letter Bulletin (900-933-ISSUE; $3.95/first minute, $1/ minute thereafter; accessible 24 hours, seven days). Clever if predictable means of political involvement for the company too busy to get involved -- and it's cheaper than calling your senator or representative. Generates letters of support or complaint, ready for your signature. Typical business concerns: waste disposal, employee health-care-payment plans, oil exploration.
-- Michael P. Cronin