Toll-free dialing goes crazy with 8's Callers are unaware of new 888 area code

July 30, 1996|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,SUN STAFF

Ken Fields is trying to figure out where his phone calls have gone.

Tom DeChant can tell him.

The St. Louis public-relations man and the Wisconsin space planning consultant are both victims of confusion that America's long-distance companies knew was coming but can't seem to lick: people can't figure out how to make toll-free phone calls in a post-800 world.

Since March, toll-free calls have included an 888 area code as well as 800, because the system is running out of 800 numbers. But Fields and DeChant say, and long-distance companies agree, that customers are taking their time getting the message.

"People hear toll-free and they call 800," Fields said, adding that the confusion became a Baltimore problem last week when his client, Mission HOME, a nonprofit group that touts the earthly economic and scientific benefits of the space program, was sponsoring former Apollo 13 astronaut James Lovell's visit to the Maryland Science Center.

Callers to 1-800-SPACEUS weren't getting Mission HOME. Instead, they were getting Space Diagnostics Inc., a Madison, Wis., firm that works with hospitals on design issues.

"We get, modestly, three to four calls a day" that should be going to Mission HOME's 1-888-SPACEUS number, DeChant said. "But had as many as five in a row after hours, when you have the kids calling."

Hospitals such as the Yale-New Haven Medical Center or the Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital are among the clients of the eight-employee firm in which DeChant is a partner. He says the communications confusion costs him a lot of time, which is a consultant's version of money.

"On a smaller firm, it's a major economic drain," he said. "It's incredibly annoying. We don't even have a full-time receptionist."

Not that they're not nice about it: a blind call to Madison before talking to DeChant yielded Mission HOME's number and a polite explanation that "we've been getting a lot of their calls; I think their number got mispublished."

Spokesmen for MCI Communications Corp. and AT&T Corp. said they knew the confusion would crop up when the new area code went into effect.

"That's something we had anticipated, it was a concern of the industry as well as the FCC [Federal Communications Commission]," MCI spokesman Michael Lewis said. "The bottom line is it's going to take some time for people to differentiate 888 from 800."

MCI tried, Lewis said: it sent out 10,000 press releases before the change and sent public service announcements to 1,000 radio stations, plus it put inserts in bills and put out word via the Internet. AT&T said it has had a team of "consumer advocates" traveling for almost a year giving interviews, and even had a nationwide phone-in contest for people to guess how many toll-free calls AT&T processed during the first week in April.

The winners, needless to say, won $888. All 88 of them. (The answer was 503.5 million, continuing 1995's annual pace of 20 billion toll-free calls on AT&T alone. AT&T said about 35 to 40 percent of its traffic on business days is toll-free, which of course isn't really free: it just means that the company receiving the call gets the bill instead of the caller.)

The state of Maryland has its own 888 number, set up to promote Gov. Parris N. Glendening's appeal for volunteers to connect Maryland schools to the Internet on "Net Weekend" in September. But the state has not been seeing major confusion.

"I wouldn't say we've had a problem, but some people are not aware 888 is toll free," said Dave Humphrey, spokesman for the state Department of General Services. He said the 1-888-828-2468 volunteer line has received thousands of calls since June 14.

There is no financial difference to callers between 800 and 888. Both are toll-free. AT&T spokeswoman Karen Way said 2 million 888 numbers are in service of the 7 million-plus that are available. When they run out, 877 will be the next toll-free prefix.

Way said that in most cases, the answer to consumer confusion is simply more publicity and time. The company tells 888 number holders to call attention to the new code in their own advertising, and to make sure the ads explicitly remind customers the call is free.

AT&T is forgiving some charges to customers whose toll-free numbers attract wayward callers, she said, and in extreme cases will put a recording on the line asking callers whether they really mean to dial that number or its counterpart in the other area code.

"We usually don't get to that until both parties are pretty upset," she said. "Because it's an extra step in the process for everyone, it's not a popular solution."

But Way had more bad news. Customers, she said, had better figure this out quickly.

"Look at it this way," she said. "At the rate we're chopping through 888 numbers, it will only be a year and a half [actually, April 1998] before we get into 877 numbers."

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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