Toll-free numbers. A crucial part of the "total solutions" marketing that companies as divergent as Asian Paints, Hindustan Lever Limited, Domino's Pizza, JK Tyres, and Bharti Telecom are adopting. Granted, that in India, often all that you get is a constantly ringing tone, or an answering machine. Yet the concept is catching on.
A toll-free number is a service where the person receiving the call pays for the phone call, rather than the caller. In the West, for a long time now, toll-free numbers have been popular among corporates to keep in touch with their customers. It makes a lot of sense for both the buyer and the seller.
Toll-free numbers are easy to operate. And cost effective for the company involved. They also reflect the changing dynamics of the marketplace, where competition in even such low consumer involvement industries such as paint or tyre has reached a high, and, better service, rather than a better product can be the key to success. So increasingly, marketers are going for "total solutions", and toll-free numbers are just one of the ways to do it.
Getting a toll-free number is relatively easy. In the West, a person or company signs up with the service provider, and they are then given a toll-free number. This can be directed to ring to any number chosen. Most people have their toll-free number ring to the main telephone line at their homes or offices - which is also why personal toll-free numbers are quite a hit in the West. In India, what is usually done is that the parent company signs up with a Customer Relations Management (CRM) firm, which then handles the contract.
This is a lucrative and growing industry. Global consultants McKinsey & Co estimate that by 2008, the global market for IT-enabled services such as call centres or back office work will be over $140 billion. And by the same year, customer interaction services are slated to grow to $33 billion, from the current $6.5 billion. However, it is not easy for small players to succeed in this business because of the need for value-added services and huge investments. On an average, one requires a minimum investment of Rs 50 crore to put up a 500-seater international call centre.
Toll-free numbers are just the starting point. And, their increasing importance just shows how the marketplace has changed. Customers, influenced by greater exposure to the latest trends, and with more disposable income, are looking for the best in everything. Be it for painting their house, washing clothes, or buying a tyre - the differentiator is quality service, quickly delivered. This is where the toll-free number, the fastest way to reach the company, comes in.
Companies know giving out relevant information alone is not enough. The marketer must convert an interest into a sale. And a toll-free number, flashed on TV, or on radio, or just plastered all across the city, is the easiest way for the company to get in touch with the consumer. And it also triggers impulse buying.
Indeed, companies stand to benefit a lot. Take perception for example. A call centre, where only a voice is heard, is easy to operate, and can be set up almost anywhere. The biggest advantage for the company is that it works out much cheaper than having a direct service center - whether the company sets up the centre by itself or whether it outsources it. And then there is the advantage of keeping irate customers at arms length. "Having a toll-free number or customer service line makes customers happy. It means improved customer satisfaction, brand loyalty, and reduced customer service costs," says a Mumbai-based marketing executive with Nestle.
That's what paints major Asian Paints did when it took the task the painting homes out of the hands of the rough and ready contractor, and made it a work of art. The company, which currently has a turnover of Rs1,300 crore, set up India's first paint helpline, in April 2000. Since then, others have adopted the tactic - like Berger Paints which has a décor service on the other end of a toll-free number (1901 333 355).
Asian Paints, by setting up the helpline (1600-11-5678), in 20 major cities, gained a considerable foothold in SEC A/B homes, for whom painting the house was not just slapping whitewash on the walls. The helpline answered questions on shades, subtle colours, prices, combinations, maintenance, home décor, moods … the works - information that a consumer would have to do harrowing research to get.
Thus, for the customer the best advice was just a call away. For Asian Paints, a sale was also just a phone call away. "What we did was to involve the consumer in the process, and make it easy for him to get involved," says a Mumbai-based executive of the company. "In the case of Asian Paints they already had a loyal customer base. For them, the toll-free number was an add on to a formidable brand equity," evaluates Prakash Chitre, chief executive, Chitre & Associates, a Mumbai-based marketing consultancy.
Bring the product directly to the consumer and create the brand has almost become a motto for marketers across the board. India's most admired FMCG marketer Hindustan Lever Limited, for example, has the "Surf Laundry Service" which has catapulted its washing powder brand Surf as a "garment care" product rather than a mere detergent. All that the customer has to do to get his clothes washed with state-of-the-art technology is too dial a number. HLL's home delivery services are available at 2000333 and its shampoo brand Sunsilk offers professional advice on 1600 110011. JK Tyres has gone ahead with the "Dial-a-Tyre" service (started in February 1999) which gives advice to those who want to buy tyres on 331 2136.
In the United States, the companies that have profited most from toll-free numbers are telecommunications, Internet service providers, beauty, banking/credit, insurance, and travel. In India, however, there is no guarantee that a potential costumer will call just because the number is free. Points out a senior account manager with the Mumbai-based marketing services agency DIREM Marketing Services, "Our experience has been that the Indian customer prefers to call at his expense if he is really interested in a product. Otherwise, he just will not call."
Indian habits are also different. Opines B. Biswas, Biswas Consultancy Services, Mumbai, "In India, the element of personal contact is much higher than that in the West, and toll-free calls, like telemarketing, is not likely catch on." Also, poor infrastructure could be a potential obstacle.
Yet, their burgeoning numbers and the immense potential only show that when handled well toll-free numbers can change the very nature of business.
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