Toll Free & Long Distance Services | Call Center

After the center’s physical parameters are set, and the agents are hired, the most important element (at least from an ongoing cost standpoint) is the pipeline into the center. The toll free and long distance services that you choose will be so expensive, and yet so rich with features and possibilities, that it’s imperative that you choose carefully, and that you revisit your decision again and again for as long as the center operates.

Toll free service was once amazingly simple. You had one company to buy from, and very little leverage in the kinds of pricing plans and service offerings you could get. By very little, I mean: none. Companies didn’t begin to build call centers until there was a cost-effective means of making nationwide toll free calls, roughly thirty-some-odd years ago.

Wide Area Telephone Service, originally an AT&T creation, was the first iteration of toll free. It discounted long distance service, put the cost onus on the called party, and so began our journey down the call center road.

With divestiture and long distance competition, there were naturally more choices and the price of call center telecom began slowly to descend. And then, in the early 1990s, just as the three main long distance companies competed fiercely in a very public battle for the home consumer long distance market, a not-so-public but just as vicious fight for the call center market heated up, too. It was helped along by resellers and aggregators, which are essentially secondary marketers of long distance service. Resellers would buy bulk minutes from phone companies at a tremendous discount, and resell them at a very small profit margin, making money on the spread. Aggregators would combine the telecom traffic generated by lots of small companies until they were able to go to a phone company and commit to buy big packages of minutes, hence qualifying for the same deep discounts the telcos gave to their largest customers.

All these things worked to drive the cost of a long distance or toll free minute down past 10 cents, in some cases to as low as five. Of course, things are never as simple as they seem.

You almost never buy telecom minutes just bare — they are just the beginning of the process. It’s all in the value-add. What’s a long distance package without some kind of service assurance policy, for example, or without network reliability guarantees?

Or better yet, would you pay more per minute if the carrier let you manipulate the network according to your own traffic needs? Routing calls here for one reason, there for another — that’s a pretty powerful ability and they all have it.

What about being able to hold calls in the network, instead of queuing them up in your ACD? Or park them in the carrier network, while the net queries the ACDs at several centers to determine which one has the right person to answer the call? You can do that too. The more complex the routing dynamic, the more likely it is that you’ll have to go to someone other than the carrier for the actual software that makes it work, but the carriers are now eager to help hook you up. (They were not always so eager; phone companies tend to be less than far-sighted, as technology companies go.)

The carriers have also experimented, with mixed results, with services that actually perform transaction processing, even fax processing, in the network. It’s like having an outsourcer handle your calls and your transactions, but there’s no actual outsourced center; it all happens automatically.

They want you to take advantage of a lot of these advanced services, whether or not they provide the mechanics, because quite frankly, call centers are a gigantic consumer of telecom minutes. The more time your callers spend hanging out in their networks, the better off they are.

Add to that one other critical reason. If you posit the notion that long distance and toll free are pretty much the same from carrier to carrier, that Sprint, MCI and AT&T are all equally reliable, clear, inexpensive and available, then what keeps you from hopping from one to another at the drop of a hat? They hook you by getting you to buy ancillary services. I can foresee a day when the value-added services are more important to the carriers than the presentation of transmission minutes, and they end up giving the minutes away to their best customers as a loss leader. Especially when we enter a world with packetized networks and all sorts of alternative transmission methods that reduce the actual cost of moving a call from here to there to effectively zero.

So what was once simple — buy on price — has become complicated. But wait, there’s complexity on another level. Until 1993, if there was a particular phone number that you wanted to have in the 800 toll free code, you had to buy service from the carrier that had custody of that number. You had no freedom to change carriers and bring your number with you — if you had significant brand equity built into your number (800-CAR-RENT, for example, or 800-MATTRESS), you were stuck.

Until 1993. That was the year that 800 Portability reorganized the way 800 numbers were given out, and changed the whole dynamic of how you acquire and route 800 numbers. Portability meant (and still means) that you have custody of your toll free number. You can keep it if you want to change carriers. This, of course, gives the carriers added incentive to serve you better, to offer more interesting features in their toll free networks to keep you as a customer, now that you’re not a hostage.

Remember also: they need your business. Call centers are monster consumers of toll free and long distance service. They will make deals with you. If they do not serve you well, you can and should leave. In fact, you should absolutely have arrangements with at least two out of the three main carriers for your core service. At a minimum, that protects you against service outages. But it also allows you to compare, month by month, the offerings and prices they charge.

At first there was a lot of concern (generated by AT&T, in part) that portability would cause degradation of service (especially longer call set up times) because each call to a toll free number has to be passed along a more complicated pathway to query a database and determine which carrier routes it before it can be connected. Happily, those problems never materialized. Portability became part of the competitive landscape, and I think was a strong factor in the rush to grab 800 numbers a few years back. That rush, in turn caused the 800 number series to run out and forced the opening of first 888, and then long before anyone thought possible, another series, 877. (Other reserved series are warming up in the bullpen.)

Portability made toll free an intelligent network application. Users with multi-site centers who wanted features like Least Cost Routing, or sophisticated queuing options benefited immensely. Many of these services are expensive, though. In some cases they can add as much as 50% to the cost of a call, putting the options out of reach of many small and medium sized call centers. High volume users have been the main beneficiaries of price-cutting and volume discounts, leaving smaller users with higher costs and no appreciable gain in service.

Through bundled consulting plans and alliances with hardware manufacturers, the three majors are trying to be more to you than just a series of trunks and switches. Offering everything from complete outsourcing of your center to simple “press one for” service, phone carriers are providing more options for call centers than ever before.

Will the call center of the future be paying for carrier services by the transaction instead of by the minute? This is just one of the possibilities raised by the brave new world of call center offerings from the three major long distance carriers.

1 comment:

tracy freeman said...

If you have a small business the best way to increase your business is to make it a whole lot easier for customers to contact you by having a toll free number. I have had one for a long time now and i can say that was a good decision on my part. Ive tried multiple toll free companies in my past. The best yet has been All companies have different plans but in the long run was the cheaper and great customer service.