Telephones are so 1876

Chip Camden expresses his problems with a survey by a virtual phone service provider about area codes and zip codes. He also explains why he dropped his toll-free service.

The people at eVoice, providers of a virtual phone number service, have just published the results of a survey they conducted in May and June about whether area codes and zip codes project a professional image for small businesses. Here are some highlights from the press release:

  • The majority of respondents (68 percent) say having the right area code or 800 number gives them a competitive edge.
  • Seventy-one percent of respondents believe their area code carries more prestige than their zip code.
  • The majority of respondents (56 percent) confirmed that the biggest benefit to having an 800 number is that their business appears larger.
  • Seventy percent of respondents stated that their mobile phone is their primary business phone.
  • When asked “What does a recognizable area code say about your business?” The number one answer from survey respondents was "Legitimacy."

I see a few problems with this survey.

There's little doubt in my mind about eVoice's reasons for asking these questions, so I think that confirmation bias is playing a big role here, in several forms. First of all, the people surveyed were "current eVoice customers and visitors to eVoice's website," thus people who have either already invested in setting up a virtual phone number or are somewhat interested in doing so. Second, the questions are leading: Does having the right area code or 800 number give you a competitive edge? Of course it does. A better question would be whether that edge is enough to warrant the cost. I'd also like to see individual results for toll-free, local area code, and other. The reasons why a local area code and a toll-free number might be attractive to customers may differ, yet the survey lumps these into a single question.

Comparing area code to zip code is a bit of a straw man. Who said that anybody ever considers zip code? You might as well ask whether your phone number or your hair color contributes more to your corporate image. Maybe some people care about zip code, but it doesn't mean much to me. I'm much more likely to judge someone by their website.

Regardless of the survey, though, I see several benefits to having a toll-free number:

  • Like they said in the survey, it makes you look bigger. I'm disappointed that this got a 56% response as the "biggest benefit," though. I think it's the least significant benefit in this list.
  • It makes you look more professional. You've invested money in taking calls from your clients, so you must be serious.
  • It says to your clients, "I want you to call me, so let's do it on my nickel."
  • It's a nice thing to do for your clients and prospects, which is always the best kind of marketing.

Some of the same reasons might apply to getting a phone number with the same area code as some of your clients, but there's one more: People like dealing with local businesses, and a local phone number fools them into thinking you are one. That applies more to consultants who work regularly on-site.

Sometime back in the 90s, a telemarketer for a small carrier offered me the number 888-44-CAMDEN. I snatched it up, printed it on my business cards, pasted it on my website, and emailed all my clients. Soon I found out that the extra number (the "N"), although it's ignored on most phones, caused one of my clients' PBX system to hang up the call. I switched to publishing the all-numeric version, which wasn't nearly as memorable.

In recent years, most of the incoming calls were from telemarketers or surveys for those "free business listings" that they "need to update" seemingly once a week. I also found that almost all of my conversations with clients and prospects have migrated to email or other Internet-borne communications. When I got to the point where I was having approximately one real business telephone conversation per month, I dropped the toll-free service. I also switched to using my mobile phone for business, with an unlisted number.

Do you have a toll-free number for your business? Do you have numbers in multiple area codes? If so, how is that helping your business?