Use of Freephone Can Boost Teleservices In Europe

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On one of the first warm, blustery spring days a few years back, a group of friends and I went to a state park to fly kites and revel in the beautiful weather. Unfortunately for one of my friends, just as she got her kite up in the air, a strong gust of wind propelled the kite out of her hands. The kite bobbed and danced down a meadow the length of a football field, sailing along about eight feet above the ground. I will never forget the comical sight of my friend chasing that kite, determined to overcome the laws of gravity in order to recover her property. No matter how fast she tried to run, the string was always dangling just one short inch from her extended fingers.


Freephone has behaved very much like my friend's kite. It has the potential to soar, yet, to date, has remained just beyond the grasp of European marketers.


Freephone is short for Universal International Freephone Numbering. It debuted in July of 1997 and allows international companies to have a single toll-free number for calls originating in different countries. Callers simply dial their country's international access code, followed by the number '800' and the eight digits that make up the Freephone number. Freephone numbers are represented as +800 XXXX XXXX, with the '+' symbol representing the international access code. One of the advantages of Freephone is that it replaces difficult to use country codes, making it easier for callers to access international toll-free services across Europe.


How Freephone Should Work In 'A Perfect World.' When Freephone was introduced, it was believed it would offer the following benefits:


*Provide a stable dial plan. A Freephone number stays with the company, even if the company moves its offices, expands service to other UIFN countries or switches carriers.


*Improve international business. Freephone numbers can streamline customer service and make placing orders more convenient.


*Profitability. Freephone numbers generate up to three times more business than conventional numbers.


* Destination transparency. Callers don't know what country they are calling -- the representative answering the phone appears to be just around the corner.


*Call routing. Calls can be routed to a representative who speaks the caller's language.


*Convenience. One easy-to-use phone number that can be used throughout Europe promotes repeat business.


With so many measurable benefits, one would expect that the use of Freephone would be expanding exponentially. However, that has not turned out to be the case.


Today Freephone is stuck. Both companies and consumers have been slow to adopt Freephone. Here are some of the facts:


*There is use of national toll-free numbers, but little adoption of UIFN


In the United Kingdom, only 6 percent of the market uses an 0800 number compared to more than 90 percent in the United States. There are approximately 150,000 international toll-free numbers outside the United States and Canada compared to 9 million in North America. National Freephone numbers account for only 3 percent of minutes carried. UIFN use is so low it can't be measured. In the United States, toll-free calls are 40 percent of daily traffic.


*Many European companies don't yet see the value of Freephone -- they ask "Why should I pay for the call?"


*Consumers have been confused about which numbers are truly free. There has been little commonality of 800 numbers -- the length of national Freephone numbers differ by country, hurting the message that '800 is free.' Marketing materials add to the confusion since phone numbers are not used in a clear manner, so consumers know a free call is being offered.


Using UIFN So It Flies Right. Companies that do business in the United States know how well toll-free phone numbers work to increase revenue, customer satisfaction and convenience. So what needs to happen to allow European marketers to enjoy the same benefits?


*The common format of UIFN must be communicated so consumers recognize Freephone numbers and feel comfortable using them.


*Marketers, especially direct marketers, must be diligent in presenting their Freephone numbers so they are recognizable as toll-free numbers.


*Callers must have a good experience when they first try using Freephone -- their calls must go through smoothly and they must be connected to representatives who speaks their languages.


*Pan-European call centers must staff to accommodate different time zones, they must have multi-lingual representatives and they must have the technology to route calls appropriately.


*Marketers need to design programs to take advantage of the benefits of Freephone.


Eventually, through sheer determination -- and a brief dip in the wind speed -- my friend was able to grab her kite and bring it under control. To my friend's chagrin and our amusement, a lesson had been learned. To enjoy clear sailing in turbulent environments, it is wise to maintain a firm grip.


Sandra Herman is director of marketing for Transcom, an international relationship management company in Carmel, IN.
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