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Dialing for Dollars
Memorable phone numbers can be a valuable asset for businesses. Now you can secure those rare numbers.
By Lisa Plendl
for Office.com

Jan. 25, 2001— Like most car dealerships, Maroone Honda of Hollywood, Fla., wanted to drive more business to its showroom floor. So the dealer added a catchy, easy-to-remember phone number to its ongoing print and radio ad campaign. Maroone was soon flooded with a thousand additional phone calls from prospective buyers each month and enough additional sales to make it one of the nation's top 10 Honda sellers.

"The reason we got this number is simple: If someone in the South Florida area wants a Honda, all they need to know or remember to call is 1 800 NEW HONDA," says general manager Bobby Yoxall. The company added the vanity number three years ago. "Other (local) dealers are just ticked off because they didn't think of it first," Yoxall says.

Easy-to-remember, toll-free numbers such as Maroone's are a "cash register" for businesses, especially "vanity numbers" using a word associated with the company or its service, says Judith Oppenheimer, an industry analyst and president of ICB Toll-Free Consultancy in New York. But with the pool of toll-free 800 numbers all but drained, and buying and selling phone numbers illegal, snagging a memorable number can be an exercise in futility. There are a few tricks that can help small businesses find a magic number, despite the competition.

Ringing the Cash Register
Vanity numbers such as 800-FLOWERS and 800 CALL ATT are known to generate a minimum of 40 percent more calls than nonmemorable numbers, says Oppenheimer, who believes the average is much higher.

The pool of 800 numbers available to companies is fairly small at any given time. Telephone carriers have attempted to accommodate growing demand by introducing other toll-free prefixes. But those prefixes — 888, 877, 866 — typically produce less traffic. "Some will tell you that 877 and 866 are fine. They're not," Oppenheimer says.

Few studies have been done, but plenty of anecdotal evidence supports that claim. Oppenheimer points to a client that included its toll-free 877 number in a series of radio ads. It also owned the 800 version of the same number, but didn't include it in the ad. But the 800 number received more than twice the number of calls as the 877 number.

Why? Consumers tend to remember vanity numbers as "800," no matter what the prefix. "It's not whether you know that 888 or 877 are toll-free prefixes," Oppenheimer says. "It's whether those numbers have been branded in your mind in a way that gets you to respond." So when a company uses an 888 or other toll-free, non-800 prefix, many of its calls — perhaps 40 percent — end up going to whomever owns the 800 version of the number, which may very well be a competitor, she says.

There are other reasons to hold out for an 800 prefix. "Across the board, when people call a vanity number, they are raising their hand to buy," says Oppenheimer. "They are not tire kickers. When you're dialing a word, there's a different mind set and behavioral process." People are ready to buy at that point, she asserts.

Yoxall won't reveal how many more cars he's selling with the number. But the dealership has moved from the list of the nation's top 20 Honda dealers into the top 10 during the past three years. Yoxall attributes much of that success to adding an easy-to-remember phone number.

Shared Use
In 1997, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that buying and selling phone numbers is illegal and reinforced its edict last December. The thinking, in part, is that phone numbers themselves shouldn't be profit-generating commodities bought and sold on the open market. But while snagging your own 800 number may be next to impossible, sharing one is a much more likely, affordable and legal alternative.

Next page: Pick a number, any number.

Here's how it works: Companies typically receive a listing of all the phone numbers that dial their 800 number. If most of their business is done in a limited region, they may agree to share their number with another company outside their region. The phone company configures things so that incoming calls are detected by area code and routed to the proper company.

It's the same technology used by big players like Pizza Hut to route customers to the nearest store when they call 800 PIZZA HUT. So the recycling outfit in New Jersey, which receives mostly local calls, can share with the surf shop in Los Angeles that sells on the West Coast and the boot maker in Dallas, all of whom need the same digits to spell out their vanity number.

Related Links
Dial800
ICB Toll-Free Consultancy
Response Marketing
Maroone Honda shares its number with Honda dealers in other parts of Florida that don't compete for the same buyers. How much should a company pay for the luxury? The price can be very reasonable, Oppenheimer says. "You could pay anywhere from about $40 to $200 per month," she says. "Or the company that owns the number might charge by the minute or $1 per call." They'll typically charge a little more than they pay per call, on top of a monthly fee.

Small businesses can start their quest by contacting a company specializing in making these number-sharing matches, such as Dial800 and Response Marketing, which set up the arrangement and then allow customers to track the number of calls, peak traffic times and other data online. Or simply call the number you want and bargain with the current owner, Oppenheimer says.

If all else fails, a local vanity number might be appropriate. If you have a pizzeria in New York and most of your business comes from the 212 area code, (212) JOES PIZZA could be a profitable phone number.

Another option for some businesses might include snagging a number with easy-to-remember digits, such as 654-4321. The most obvious easy-to-recall numbers are likely taken, but they're worth asking for, Oppenheimer says. It's in the phone carriers' best interest to make business clients happy.

Hide Your Cards
In either case, don't tip your hand, Oppenheimer says. Phone companies have been known to reserve such numbers for larger corporations with huge advertising budgets. They know the number will likely generate more traffic and thus, bigger profits for the phone carrier itself. Revealing the actual vanity number, whether local or not, may tip the phone company off that this is a good number for another business.

"Never ask them for a vanity number. Tell them the actual number you want (using numeric digits)," Oppenheimer says. And if AT&T says it doesn't have the number, go to MCI, Sprint or other carriers, including wireless and cable telephone providers.

What's considered a good number?  The vanity number should reflect the company's brand name, if it's well-known, or otherwise, the product or service itself. And numbers of more than seven digits after the 800 prefix won't work from cell phones.