Dial H... for help

Written by Jyoti Verma | Updated: Aug 31 2008, 05:51am hrs
When you receive them, unsolicited, you get into a rage. But admit it, in this hurried existence, where would you be without helplines to get through your day. You are hungry, you call a number. You need to send an anniversary gift you left for too late, you can depend on another number. For your travel needs, you can dial yet another number. Its a welcome spin-off to the telecom revolution tele-helplines are sorting out quite a few problems for quite a number of busy people.

The demand was more than enough for Pfizer India to add another phoneline to its address recently. The company launched a toll-free helpline, 1800-4-190190, to help smokers quit. A toll-free number is a telephone number that can be called by customers and prospective customers at no cost to the caller. The cost of the call to the called party is usually based on factors such as the amount of usage the number experiences, the cost of the trunk lines to the facility, and possibly a monthly flat rate service charge. The Pfizer helpline, reached from all mobile and landline numbers from 8 am to 8 pm everyday, aims to educate motivated quitters about nicotine addiction and provides guidance that will help them embark on the journey of staying smoke free. The rest is up to the interested individual, says the company. For Dr Chandrashekhar Potkar, director, Medical and Regulatory Affairs at the pharma major, the helpline is more of a support booster to smokers, and also awareness enhancer about its smoking cessation medication Champix.

A new business, helplines make commercial sense too. Besides the government, with its health and family welfare tele-lines, welfare organisations and corporates, due to service value addition to consumers and social responsibility, all are making people call.

LifeLines India, the social responsibility programme of British Telecom and Cisco, aims to prove the value of digital inclusion, educating rural users to use technology to access advice and learning to improve the future for their families and the local community. Addressing over 800,000 calls each year in a handful of states it is operating in, the service has a database of over 30,000 frequently asked questions, enabling knowledge workers to provide a very timely response to repeat queries, at a nominal cost. This speed of response is essential if the service is to achieve its objective of becoming truly self-sustaining. With the technology remaining much the same telephone we are making it more accessible, informed and quick, says the BT spokesperson.

A call and a toll away

Romal Shetty, executive director, Risk Advisory Services, KPMG, too underlines the augmentation of helplines globally. Moving ahead of the business model of making people pay on their calls, he focuses on the origin of the toll-free concept and the strategy of the first comers. All this started in the late 60s when AT&T figured out how to develop toll free numbers and a billing mechanism to charge the owner of the toll free number. It monopolised this business until its entire telephone business was broken down by the government in 1984 in a landmark anti-trust ruling. In America, you can order flowers through 1-800-FLOWERS or check phone numbers and local businesses through 1-800-YELLOWPAGES. The alphabets translate to numbers on the telephone keypad, he says, underlining, This simple but unique tool still gathers a lot of attention in the US but seems to have not gained any traction in India.

Calling on several toll-free lines by companies automobiles, mobile companies, paint or beauty chains one gets to know the discord here. Many of the numbers of known companies too fail to connect. Perhaps it is to do, Shetty believes, with the lack of marketing attention by Indian companies. Toll free numbers have not taken off here compared to the overall telecom revolution. Some of the advertised telephone numbers, which may or may not be toll free, are primarily restricted to television and reality shows, he points out.

Globally though, toll free numbers are still very popular, especially in the areas of customer care and sales contact centres. In India, companies such as Citibank have tried to emulate their international counterparts in establishing a recognisable number, for example a number ending with 2484 representing CITI on the telephone keypad. However, such numbers are not toll free. Rather they are just a vanity number, says Shetty.

For Sanjiv R Pande, country manager, ibm.com, IBM India/South Asia, the situation is poised for change. Betting on the concept of toll free helplines, he has company sales as a testimony. For IBM, the sale of products and services through alternative mediums such as phone and web has helped accelerate growth in India, one of the fastest growing markets for software and hardware products in the world. Global sales through the Web and phone accounted for one-fifth of companys revenues in 2007, up from about 5% in 2006. The rise is mainly because customer preferences in terms of technology acquisitions are changing; customers are looking for ease of use in sourcing and deploying technology. Compared with the usual tele-sales model, wherein a sales person calls on a customer, we have seen a three to four-fold rise in productivity and efficiency through web and phone sales, he says.

Business yes! Comfort may follow

In India, toll free numbers may be constrained by languages, telecom regulations and the fact that customer care is still not considered a free necessity, especially for smaller businesses. The telecom regulator has made it possible to have toll-free numbers across telecom networks but there needs to be some impetus to bring them out in the open.Globally, toll free numbers are a preference (see box), as these are considered to be an absolute necessity for businesses. However, having a number for anyone to call and then paying for it is still alien to us. A significant change in the mindset is required and with the services economy maturing, one expects to see many more toll free innovative numbers display on our highways too, say experts.

As a global telecom operator points out, there has been no real advancement in technology for a toll free helpline. But with various companies in the outsourcing business depending on these lines, the situation is going to change for the better. As a caller, till then, it is actually advised to have faith and hold the line.

Why call here

Consumers delight, studies: Customers are more likely to call you if a company has a toll free number. The response rates to companys marketing initiatives gets higher on a toll free line

Companies delight too: Companies too like the toll-free lines because they are portable and create a more national presence and have additional capabilities in terms of reporting and routing that local numbers dont have. Another major reason for their popularity is that they have dropped so dramatically in price and ease of use

Portability: An advantage of toll free numbers is the ability to change the ring to number. If one moves the business, one can change the toll free number to ring at ones new location, and theres no cost to it