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Tips for Offering a Toll-Free Number

How to decide if your business should have an 800-number.
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The two entrepreneurs who founded 1-800 CONTACTS, a contact lens company based in Draper, Utah, back in 1995 believed very strongly in the value of an 800 number. "So much so that we named our company after one," says Kevin McCallum, the company's current senior vice president of marketing and operations.

Having a toll-free number, not to mention a memorable number, has been a boon for business. The company now has more than $200 million in yearly sales. "It cuts through the clutter by taking one key step out of the calling process," McCallum says. "Your potential customers can either look in a phone book for your number where they are exposed to a myriad of competitive ads before they call or they can just remember your number and pick."

Sending a message

A toll-free number says you care about your customer, according to Anita Campbell, the editor and CEO of Small Business Trends, a business blog that examines the small business market, and a columnist for Inc. Technology. On a really simple level they appeal to customers. What's not to like? It's a free call.

Beyond that, a toll-free number can help reduce the perceived geographic walls between a company and its potential customers, says Steve Hilton, an analyst with the Yankee Group, a research firm based in Boston. "It makes a business seem more national or international in scope rather than local," Hilton says.

It also sends a message to customers that they can easily reach a representative from your company. "A toll-free number is one piece of a marketing and sales execution strategy," Hilton says. "It provides one of many ways for a business to touch its customers/prospects and allow customers/prospects to touch a potential vendor," says Hilton.

But at what cost

Prices for the toll-free numbers have dropped recently.

A competitive toll-free service plan might go for as little as $10 a month, says Campbell, and less than five cents per minute for incoming calls on your toll-free line. But keep in mind that there is a risk of getting high phone bills from people calling your business on that line, particularly international callers. But there's a way around that. "Some toll-free numbers do not allow international in-calling," says Hilton, "so a business can mitigate its international telecom risks if it wants."

Keep in mind though there are supposed to be costs, particularly marketing and sales costs, associated with it, in return it's supposed to increase your revenues. "It's a trade-off all businesses can make," says Hilton. "Generally a toll-free number is a marketing and sales tool."

Take it with you

The 1-800 numbers are still the standard. To see which numbers are available -- especially if you want to grab a really memorable one, like 1-800 CONTACTS -- go to SMS/800 of call their help desk at 1-888-SMS-3300.

One thing to note is that these could also offer a cost savings to the business because they are portable. If your business moves from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh or Peoria to Paoli, you don't have to get all new phone numbers. With the toll-free one, you are all set.

Man can not live on toll-free numbers alone

Toll-free numbers should be viewed as just one piece of a small business's marketing and sales puzzle, says Hilton. "Toll-free numbers can be part of a call-to-action when small businesses do marketing outreach to prospects and customers," he says. "But, they also need to consider an online presence with appropriate e-marketing or e-commerce functionality to drive their business forward."

However, with all of today's technological advancements, no conversation about toll-free numbers would be complete without answering the question of whether all this talk is moot given low-cost telecom options, such as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and free-calling through services such as Skype.

As of yet, there is no way to offer a toll-free number in direct conjunction with Skype, Hilton says. "The best you could do is get a Skype account and link a series of phone numbers with different country and area codes to that account," he says. "It wouldn't be  a true toll-free number, because you can't have unlimited numbers linked  to a Skype account."




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