The Bizarre Persistence of Toll Free Numbers

In a perfect world, technology would advance smoothly and predictably. Every year we’d see advancements within the technologies we know and love and  everyone would adopt these new technologies as they became available, and we’d all benefit from operating at the highest possible level our modern technology affords.

Too bad, we don’t live in this perfect world. Communication technology advances at a crawl and then surge forward, organizations fail to keep up even when the benefits are clear, and all of us have to negotiate an uneven technological terrain.

Most of these imperfections are due to economic reasons, but some of them lie within peculiarities of human behavior, lack of information and irrational attachments. To understand what I mean, look no further than one of the most stubborn holdouts of days of telephony technology gone by- the toll free number.

Toll free numbers used to make a lot of sense. In the day when voice billing was mostly governed by LATAs (local access and transport areas) , intrastate and interstate tariffs. Calls within the United States were divided into local, local toll and long distance, causing you to pay hefty usage rates each time you made a call. To make it enticing to call their offices, businesses began to offer “toll free” numbers by accepting whatever toll charges so that callers wouldn’t have to pay them. Not every business could afford an 800 number and having a toll free number also became a matter of prestige as well as indication of company outreach. So really, it’s no wonder people fell head-over-heels for 1-800 numbers.

Welcome to 2012, an era of VoIP telephony when most mobile and “land line” voice billing is either flat rated or usage-based with a fixed price per minute to any call within continental U.S. VoIP pricing disrupted telecommunications industry and changed the way we think about calling. Toll free number continues to stick around despite no longer offering any logical benefit to individuals who call them. In today’s world of modern telephony technology dominated by VoIP systems few, if any, phone calls result in additional charges. Nearly every single intrastate call you will make is either going to be totally free on its own, or it will do nothing more than utilize some of the minutes included in your calling plan. Seeing as the average phone call to a 1-800 number would already be free even if those numbers were not nominally “toll free,” why do we still insist on using this obsolete telephony convention?

Some people will argue it’s due to the fact usage rates still exist on some plans. This is true, but the vast majority of callers utilize one of the aforementioned phone plans, and those whose plans charge-per-call incur usage fees that are so small they may as well be free.

In today’s VoIP telephony world there is little to none fiscal benefit to the continued prevalence of 1-800 numbers. These numbers exist, however, for totally different  reasons:

  1. These numbers exist because people like them and associate positively to them. After all, businesses not only continue to set up 1-800 numbers for their customer service and sales lines, they continue to advertise these numbers as “toll free!” Businesses understand that the words “toll free number” acts as a positive trigger within the minds of their customers and makes them more likely to call in.
  2. Toll free numbers are location independent (they aren’t associated with any single place unlike other area codes) and signing up for a toll-free number allows a business to sign up for a “vanity number,” a phone number whose individual digits correspond with an associated word or phase (e.g. 1-800-NEW-STUF). Yet even the underlying basis beneath vanity numbers is now obsolete, as many consumer phones no longer utilize letter/number correspondence!
  3. Despite their broad availability and affordability, they continue to provide residual sense of prestige

Ultimately these examples demonstrate a simple, yet powerful, fact- no matter how far we advance technologically, our industries still lie at the mercy of our customer’s mindsets.