If you’ve ever been curious about a toll free number that you’ve seen on your phone – or are looking for the toll free number for a particular company (or department within a company) – a toll free directory would have traditionally been one way that you could try to get the information you needed. Most toll free directories, however, have a fundamental flaw.
First of all, what are toll free numbers?
Toll free numbers are phone numbers that are billed for calls received at that number rather than charged to the person who makes the call as is ordinarily the case. When long-distance calls were expensive (and prior to wide adoption of the internet), a toll-free number was – and still is – a great way to encourage people to call a business. Phone numbers starting with 800, 888, 877, 866, 855 and 844 area codes are all reserved for toll free numbers.
What’s the problem with the toll free directory?
Up until March 31, 2000, AT&T Communications maintained the Toll Free Directory Assistance service, which was the go-to source for toll free number information. This service was originally phone-based (as it predated the internet) and was operator assisted with a 40-cent fee per listing charge to callers from the public.
One major limitation of the AT&T Toll Free Directory was that the listings were all voluntarily provided by the companies which maintained the registration for individual toll-free telephone numbers (known as RespOrgs or Responsible Organizations). Early in the life of toll free numbers, there were very few RespOrgs (and relatively few toll free numbers), so maintaining a toll free directory was pretty simple. Today, there are about 350 RespOrgs and over 20 million toll free numbers in operation. It’s not surprising that by the time the AT&T’s Toll Free Directory was discontinued, they estimated their directory had less than 5% of the total number of active toll free numbers.
Of course, the major reason – and justification – given for discontinuing the toll free directory was the rise of the internet. Though there are toll free directories listed online, they are often very limited for the same reason the AT&T Toll Free Directory was limited – namely, that they rely on RespOrgs to give them the info (which they don’t often do) or they simply let public users submit listings (which, not surprisingly, are sometimes inaccurate). In fact, though AT&T maintained their own online toll free directory after discontinuing their call-in version, they eventually discontinued it completely – the results just weren’t there.
Online directories in general have lost their value because of the evolution of search engines like Google and Bing. Now, instead of needing to consult a central database of information, a quick Google search of the toll free number itself or a search for the specific company itself can give you results instantly, and for free.
For example, if you were trying to find a toll-free number for Nordstrom customer service:
Googling “Nordstrom customer service toll free number” gives you exactly what you’re looking for in seconds. In this case, not only do you get the toll free number you’re looking for, but also the social media accounts which are often a more expedient way to make contact with a company.
While a true, comprehensive toll free directory may not exist, there are plenty of alternative ways to get the information you’re looking for – and they’re likely to be free and instant!