What does your company phone number say about your business?

Image is everything, right down to the numbers. How can your phone number work for or against you?

Overcome by the latest gadgets and constantly trying to keep up with the corporate Joneses, it can be easy to overlook one of the more basic elements of your business, without which all your flash technology would be pointless: your phone number.

Your phone number is very much who you are. Some would even argue that only your name says more about your company. But even with the punchiest of monikers, having the wrong digits can undermine your message.

Your number can make you seem as big or as small as you desire. It can add weight when you compete against the big boys in your market, or it can give you more of a local feel when you are that market’s big boy. It can make you money when you might not want a customer’s call, or it can cost you a small fortune when their call is all that matters. Likewise,itcanearnyouenmityortrust.LLikewise, it can earn you enmity or trust.

Choosing the right phone number can sometimes do more for your business than a pricey PR firm. But how do you know which is best for your business?

Non-geogrphic numbers

Also known as ‘virtual numbers’, the 0800, 0845 and 0870 numbers popular among call centres and promotions all fall into this category, as do the premium rate 09 numbers. These numbers are attractive because they do not tie you to any one area or region; rather, they give your company the impression of having a national presence.

Non-geographic numbers, or NGNs, make your contact details more memorable and boost your response rates from advertising by as much as 50%, according to Neil Sherring, marketing director of Windsor Telecom.

“The use of an NGN also ensures you will always have one business phone number for life,” he says. “If your business relocates or you are out of the office then you can instantly change the direction of your NGN to a new landline or mobile phone number. This also helps to avoid any expensive re-advertising or printing costs.”

0800 numbers are the NGNs with which you will be most familiar. The 0800 number allows customers to call you at no charge to them; however, you will pay the cost of every call made to you, costing about 5p per minute. While costly, Sherring points out that incentivising your customers with a free line of communication demonstrates a real commitment to them.

James Whelan, ICT director for Merseyside solicitors Barnetts, found this commitment extremely important in his firm’s bid to motivate more target customers to pick up the phone. To bolster its appeal, Barnetts set up an 0800 number which he says has changed the firm’s profile. “In our line of work, we have more chance of getting a lead if the client doesn’t have to pay,” he says. “If we can get them to make that initial call, we get the details we need, and we usually get their business.”

The 0845 option is another favourite for those wanting the benefits of a perceived national presence but at a much lower cost. With an 0845 number, both you and the calling party will share the local rate cost, of which you will pay approximately 3p per minute. Some providers, such as Windsor, forego this rate in favour of an annual fee. “These numbers are still seen as customer-friendly and are very popular with growing companies,” Sherring says.

The popularity of revenue-sharing 0870 numbers, on the other hand, has roused regulators from their slumber. While other NGNs cost you money, an 0870 can generally make you a few pence per minue through a scheme in which you and your phone provider share the proceeds from your client’s call. One such provider, Redstone Telecom, suggests that a revenue-sharing scheme is the logical next step for a company looking to expand.

“Companies need to be creative in how they make their money,” says Mike Coppack, sales and marketing director at Redstone. “My view is that if a business employs call centres, for instance, offering technical support for their services, they should be compensated.   But it really depends on the service you provide.

“To do it well you must carefully manage your perception. As long as a business does its marketing properly, a company can use a revenue sharing plan to create a good little business for itself.”

The controversy of 0870

It is precisely for this reason that Ofcom put its foot down on 0870 schemes. From July, the regulator is placing an 18-month notice period on 0870 and 0871 revenue sharing. Companies may still sign up to a scheme during this time, but from January 2008, 0870 number holders must either provide a free, pre-call announcement explaining how much the call costs, otherwise they must be billed no more than an equivalent national call to a geographic number.

While providers have appealed for alternative ways to inform callers, Phil Siemen, senior partner with Golden Transfer, a recruitment agency for the caring industry, claims that callers are all too aware of how much they’re paying. Golden Transfer took on an 0870 number in advance of a major promotion, but now Siemen says he’ll never use one again.

“Our incoming call rates went down by about 20%,” Siemen says. “To a degree, it threw our campaign into peril because we lost about two months. At first we thought the campaign letter wasn’t right, but we showed it to a PR company, which said it was fine. Their theory was that people felt they had to pay to call our number even though the 0870 was just a normal rate number.”

Eventually the company reverted to its normal code, and in the last month of the promotion it saw a much better response. “It’s quite frightening, really. I thought it would give us an image of having a national brand, but it backfired. I think businesses should do more research before taking these numbers on.”

Premium rate services

Another revenue sharing scheme, though not targeted by Ofcom, are the premium rate services that don the 09 prefix. Charged above standard rates due to content, products or services, rates range from 5p to £1.50 per minute, or a 10p to £1.50 per call tariff.

Coppack points out that whether you are an internet company running a helpline for your clients or a company in the adult sector, with a premium rate number you stand to make 2-3 pence per minute after splitting the revenue with BT and your provider.

Local rate services

While many companies aim to puff out their chests and look bigger, others find it in their best interests to appear local. Emma Hackforth, director of talent management consultancy Matchsticks, uses 0845 numbers to attract larger clients, but she prefers to have the London 0207 code when headhunting certain positions.

“London numbers help during headhunting campaigns, as most of my candidates and clients live in that area and are reassured by the knowledge that I am close-by for meetings,” she says. “When you want someone specifically for a job, such as a bank manager who works long hours, commutes become more of an issue. That’s when having the local number really comes into its own.”

She likes the idea of an 0800 number that her clients can call for free, but, she says, these numbers are associated with call centres where callers languish on hold. And that’s not the impression she wants to give. Her business survives on quick communication.

For Hackforth’s and your own business, getting it right requires careful management. It requires a knowledge of your market. You must know what your potential clients are thinking. And that, really, is the key to selecting the right number.


(will not be published)