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Thursday, September 11, 1997

Staff Writer

Bill Quimby's goal is to make the yellow pages as obsolete as rotary telephones.

The Ramsey entrepreneur is launching a telephone referral service that hooks up consumers with professionals -- from pediatricians to painters -- with the touch of one phone number.

Through his program, 1-800-4-REFERRAL, Quimby is using the same concept as 1-800-DENTIST and 1-800-BANKRUPT, which match consumers with professionals in their neighborhoods, to try to bring success to a variety of small businesses and professionals across the tri-state area.

"It's a number that makes your life easy. If you are new to the area or away from home, you can find a qualified, prescreened professional of any kind in your area," Quimby said. And customers only have to remember one number and they can be connected directly to whatever service they need, he said.

"Instead of digging up the Bergen County phone book, you can dial 1-800-4-Referral, select the plumbing category from the menu, punch in your ZIP code, and you are connected to a licensed plumber in your area," Quimby said.

Callers can choose from various categories of professionals: physicians, surgeons, lawyers, dentists, vision care, therapists and chiropractors, construction contractors, home services, and automotive services. Under each heading are more specific listings that narrow the choices -- for example, under the therapist category are: occupational therapist, massage therapist, psychotherapist, and marriage counselor.

The service, which will begin in October, helps companies and customers alike because it offers easy access to an array of local professionals and gives small businesses and practitioners more power and visibility by being part of a team, Quimby said.

Toll-free referral services emerged in the 1980s to connect consumers with professionals or businesses and help the referral service members generate more business, said Chris Landes of TeleChoice Inc., a Verona telecommunications consultancy. For the most part, he said, the services are successful. "For a lot of these service providers, it brings more people to their front door."

Today, there are a growing number of such referral services throughout the country, including lines for CPAs, car towing services, real estate agents, even private autopsy services, said Judith Oppenheimer, publisher of ICB Toll Free News, an on-line journal of toll-free marketing, and regulatory and political issues.

She attributes the sudden boom in 800 numbers as a marketing tool to the Federal Communication Commission's portability ruling for 800 numbers in May 1993, which allowed businesses to transfer their 800 numbers to other long-distance carriers without having to change the number. "It allows marketers to make more interesting entrepreneurial uses of 800 numbers and this is one of those uses," she said.

But consumers searching for the right doctor or dentist should be wary, said Gary Robinson, executive director of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, based in Oakland, Calif., which bargains for contracts for physicians and dentists, podiatrists, and psychiatrists.

"Somebody who signs up with a catchy 800 telephone number does not necessarily have the knowledge and credentials that you would expect. The public should really deal with a reputable organization that they know," he said, suggesting that people contact referral services of hospitals and dental and medical associations rather than an 800 business.

For example, the Glaucoma Foundation's referral service can be reached by dialing 1-800-GLAUCOMA and Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center's physician referral line is 1-800-227-CPMC. The Medical Society of New Jersey does not have an 800 referral number but its office gives referrals for physicians throughout the state and its Web site ( has a physician finder feature.

Pamela McClure, director of communications for the Division of Consumer Affairs for New Jersey, also cautioned consumers about getting referrals from 800 services.

"We would suggest that consumers call the appropriate board here, whether it be the board of dentists, or the board of physicians, to see if the doctor they want to see is licensed and in good standing."

Quimby has considered that. Professionals signing up with his program must meet certain criteria, he said. "They must be properly licensed and accredited by legal and professional authorities, certified for the appropriate specialty, fully insured, be subject to reasonable, financial, legal and moral background checks and standards," he said, adding that he can afford to be choosy because each category is only available to one professional per ZIP code.

Quimby's is marketing his service in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. So far, 12 clients in Bergen County have signed up, Quimby said.

Membership costs $69 a month and there is a one time setup fee of $198.50. Clients also pay for the calls they receive on the 800 line by the minute, as they would with any other 800 number.

A portion of the fees will go toward an advertising campaign on radio, television, billboards, and newspapers, Quimby said. The service also will launch an Internet site with a Web page for each participant in October.

"Each member only contributes a small part, but together we can literally develop a million dollars' worth of advertising and promotions," Quimby said.

This is what attracted Harvey Weiss, an optometrist at Total Vision in Oakland. "He already has some well-known radio spots set up. [Ads on WOR's John Gambling and Rush Limbaugh shows and WPLJ's Scott and Todd show are scheduled for January.] There's no way I could do all that advertising by myself," said Weiss, who occasionally advertises in local newspapers.

"Everybody has to be licensed," Weiss said, responding to those who question the reliability of 800 referral lines. "They checked my license and background. I assume they are checking out everybody who signs up to make sure their license is up to date, check that they don't have a criminal record, and that their office is in order. It's in the service's best interests to do that."

Weiss is confident that the 800 line will be effective in bringing in new customers since it will connect callers in his area directly with his office.

Some are not as enthusiastic about the referral service. Gabriel Golan, president of Saddle Brook-based Teledontics, an advertising service that handles the northeast service of 1-800-DENTIST, doubts that 1-800-4-REFERRAL will ring up many calls.

"The same thing's been tried before under different names and it never worked," said Golan. "I think that those types of services try to include too many things and they can't focus on any part of their service to give the right type of service to the public."

Myra Kotak, director of Kean College's Small Business Development Center in Union, agrees. "This is too amorphous. People want to connect with an expert in a particular field and they want to have a clear attachment in their mind.

"People may be hesitant to call the referral line for a doctor or dentist because those are professionals who you want to have referrals for from someone you know."

Despite such skepticism, Quimby is optimistic that his program will generate new customers for many of his clients. The 31-year-old has been working as an entrepreneur since he graduated from Ramapo College about a decade ago. His first enterprise was a resume service in Parsippany. It was there that he was first struck with 800 fever -- he wanted customers from across the country to be able to find him.

Quimby began researching the 800 number industry and subsequently formed Toll Free Referrals, a telenumeric consultancy in Vernon, which brokers deals for companies to attain vanity 800 numbers. The company is still operating out of Ramsey.

But it is the latest project he is most excited about, he said. "This service will be a tremendous tool to give the power of a large organization back to the small local business and professional."

Copyright 1997 Bergen Record Corp.