WATS – The Origin of the Toll Free Number

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The year was 1967. The Doors released their self-titled debut album, Louis Leaky announced the discovery of pre-human fossils in Kenya, the Vietnam War raged, and NASA launched the first Saturn V rocket into orbit.

It was also the year that AT&T launched the “inward WATS,” or Wide Area Telecommunications Service, better known as “toll-free” telephone service. INWATS was introduced to reduce the time spent by operators processing toll-collect calls for businesses. Back then, long distance calls were expensive and businesses quickly seized the opportunity to use the service to provide superior customer experiences. The oldest and most well-known of the toll-free area codes in the United States, “800,” was the “.com” calling card for successful businesses.

Unlike local numbers, which are assigned specific and unique 3-digit prefixes, the 800 prefix was not constrained to a specific location, so all 7-digits of the number could be used by a subscriber, anywhere in the country. This gave rise to the “vanity” number, easily remembered combinations like “800-FLOWERS,” or “800-RENT-CAR.” The desire to create unique and meaningful combinations of numbers for business purposes was great, and empires were created based largely on the company’s toll-free number success.

Vanity numbers help customers remember your company's number.

Vanity numbers help customers remember your company's number.

New toll-free prefixes were added to satisfy the growing demand – 888, 877, 866, and most recently 855. Although you can no longer acquire the number “800-FLOWERS,” many desirable and memorable combinations are still available, particularly in the newer prefixes. Even if your number does not “spell” something memorable, a toll-free number adds prestige to your small business and gives the impression of a much larger company.

Once you’ve invested in advertising and your toll-free number – it’s important that you have the services in place to answer the call. With virtual phone systems like Halloo, you can now couple your toll-free number with auto attendant service, hunt groups, conferencing and a myriad of additional services to make your toll-free number work for you. With the support of your virtual phone system, your business can turn the numerous benefits of your vanity number – nationwide accessibility, easy recognition, and instant credibility – into superior customer service.


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