Which of the 118s will win recall war?

The number’s up for the venerable 192 national directory enquiries (DQ) service. Now there are a host of enquiry services jostling for attention and trying to convince consumers how helpful they are, while the public are left baffled by the exact cost of a call and straining to retain one number in their heads.

Telephone regulator Oftel ordered BT’s 192 service to be stopped at midnight last Saturday. The BT service was once free, then moved on to charging 40p a call. That overhaul will seem like small beer compared with the host of new competing tariffs, which have been labelled confusing and expensive by a number of consumer groups.

Britain’s DQ services represent a lucrative business. It is the largest in Europe and generates 700 million fixed-network calls a year. The market’s current value is &£300m, but some analysts predict that it could be worth as much as &£1.3bn within three years. It is understandable why some of the companies are spending millions of pounds on advertising their new numbers.

Analysts suggest that once the market frenzy has died down there will be just two or three winners. Already there are three main players with a higher profile than the rest: Conduit, an Irish call centre which already runs directory services in Ireland, Spain and Austria; The Number, which is owned by US call centre company InfoNXX; and BT.

The most high profile so far is one of the most expensive. The Number’s 118 118 charges a 49p connection charge. It has set aside a budget of &£20m to advertise its service, with the bulk of the spend being allocated to television advertising. The stars of its ads – two runners in retro sports gear – have already attained iconic status.

The Number marketing director Alex Lewis says that independent tracking from Millward Brown shows unprompted awareness to be at 50 per cent and prompted awareness to be more than 80 per cent.

“We’re not spending the most on advertising,” she adds, “but we still anticipate capturing more than 50 per cent of the market.”

Lewis also believes that her company’s number, 118 118 – which cost InfoNXX &£2m to secure from another holder – is the easiest number to remember. It was also the first to begin marketing, with an advertising campaign in March.

Conduit, which owns 118 888, will have spent &£40m advertising its service by the end of this year. With a 20p per minute flat-rate connection charge, it is one of the cheapest services and is getting the thumbs up from the majority of the media.

Neil Christie, marketing director at Conduit’s advertising agency Euro RSCG Wnek Gosper Partners, says that because InfoNXX already had the best number in terms of recall, Conduit knew it would have to offer cheaper calls to give people a good reason to use its service.

He adds that the advertising onslaught of 118 numbers is only for the launch period: “Once people get a number into their head, there’s not going to be a lot of switching between the brands.”

BT, which has a 25p connection charge, only launched its campaign last week, sticking yellow Post-It-style messages on billboards telling people that the new number for BT 192 has changed to 118 500. It plans to spend roughly &£10m on advertising the product and aims to control a third of the market.

Inevitably the fierce rivalry has led to complaints. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has received complaints about all three of the leading companies.

Conduit has had two industry complaints, neither upheld, while The Number has had 19 complaints, some of which have been upheld. BT was fined &£10,000 by the ASA for its ad after Centrica objected to a BT campaign that was stamped as a public notice (MW July 17).

There are several other 118 numbers that either do little or no advertising. The cheapest service – if only by a penny – is Directory Enquiries UK 118 800.

It is relying on PR and sponsorship at sporting events, such as taking billboards at the Six Nations’ rugby tournament at Twickenham, to reach the business community.

In other countries where there has been deregulation, the incumbent has continued to control the glut of the market. However, in the UK, Oftel has decided that BT will not be able to tell consumers who ring 192 what its new number is. Instead callers are asked to ring another number which will give them a random 118 number to try.

Deregulation marks a recalibration of the industry. The Number’s 118 118 refers to itself as offering “directory assistance” and offers consumers unlimited numbers, cinema listings and details of their nearest tube station if required. It owns another number, 118 811, which is its basic service and costs 30p a call.

The new market entrants say that the future of the services will be based on consumers being put straight through – a service for which they could pay from twice to ten times as much.

The Number has already faced criticism not only for its 49p connection charge, but also for rerouting to call centres abroad, where operators have been accused of having a limited grasp of British geography.

A company spokesman admits that there have been limited cases of consumer calls being rerouted from its call centres in Cardiff and Plymouth to call centres based abroad. He says the number of consumers already ringing 118 118 caught the company on the hop.

“When deregulation happened in other countries, only ten per cent of people using DQ services began using the new numbers before switch-off. In Britain, 30 per cent of consumers are already using the services.” The Number has now pledged to employ another 700 people at its call centres in the UK.

Directory Enquiries UK service (118 800), with its 19p a minute service, has its calls answered by a call centre in South Africa. Its director and co-founder Murray McPherson says that all staff are either ex-pats from the UK or have worked in the UK.

The media has been giving breakdowns of the costs consumers will incur with each of the services. These details are bound to have a negative impact on some companies – the mobile phone operators are now receiving flak for charging far more to connect to a 118 number than a landline.

Consumers who take the time to digest the facts will have an opportunity to make an informed choice between the various providers. Those who don’t will succumb to the number that shouts the loudest.

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