While recently onboarding 1800Warranty.com as a new client, we thought to ask a few Minters, a couple client execs, and assorted offspring, “Do you know what an 800 number is?”

Here is just a handful of some of the more accurate and/or entertaining answers:

  • “It’s a corporate number answered by a robot that will help route your call to the right person.”
  • “It’s a business number for customer service.”
  • “Isn’t it one of those numbers for lonely people to call and talk to some stranger about having sex?” (this was an actual Gen Z response)
  • “1-800 was the original toll-free number. Wait… so why do we still have them?”

Why DO we still have them? First, let’s check out why 800 numbers were created in the first place.

A History Lesson

AT&T launched the first 800 number as “automated collect calling.” At first, “toll-free calling” was a novelty. A very expensive novelty for businesses who used an 800 number, because AT&T held a monopoly on them and charged a premium, per call.

A federal judge ordered the “Ma Bell” product into more than a dozen regional phone carriers.  So, companies that previously could not afford an 800 number could now afford to adopt them as a standard business practice.

A new law guaranteed phone number portability between carriers, which allowed a company with a clever vanity number like 1-800-PICK-UPS to keep it, despite changing providers.

Having a toll-free number quickly shifted from an advantage enjoyed by major players to a necessity for companies operating on a regional level. This caused an explosion in demand for 800-numbers that outstripped the 10,000,000 number supply. To meet the demand, 888 numbers were introduced in 1996; 877 and 866 numbers debuted in 1998 and 1999; 855 numbers were the most recent, in 2010. Growth in demand slowed with the popularity of cell phones, but the numbers remain.

Where 800 numbers and their equivalents were once a token offering to customers, they are now a symbol of corporate professionalism. Services routing an 800 number directly to your personal cell phone are quite common today, even for an entrepreneur working out of a basement office.

It can be fun to review changes since the turn of the century as we roar into a new decade. What other “standard business practice” do you think deserves a second look in 2020?