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10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

When Bill Bradford and his partners at RBJ Manufacturing Co. Inc. started out in late 1996, they were like a lot of small start-ups: They didn't have a lot of money for marketing or advertising, but had a product that they thought would be a big seller.

"Not having the big dollar signs behind us, we really had to step out and try to get the product out there," says Bradford, who serves as vice president of operations. "We went to a lot of trade shows and depended on a lot of free publicity."

Because of the unique nature of the product - the Johnny-Light, a small device that illuminates the toilet whenever the seat is up-many newspapers and local morning shows took an interest. A key part of this strategy was having the toll-free number in place.

"I think it says to the customer that we are willing to pay for them to get more information about our product," says Bradford. "The number also gave the business an image of a much larger, established business."

With all of the company's early sales-the product has since been picked up by the Lowe's home-improvement chain-dependent on free publicity, it was important to have a toll-free number that people could remember as it was flashed on the TV screen or announced on the radio. While the 800 number that spells J-O-N-L-I-T-E was taken, the new 888 version was not, which led to at least one problem.

With the 888 series of toll-free numbers being relatively new, many people mistakenly say or write down 800 instead. A morning host was quite embarrassed after giving out the company's number using 800 instead of 888, only to find out that the 800 version was owned by a phone-sex company.

"It's what can happen because we had only the 800 number for so many years," says Bradford, who received quite a few calls after the host corrected the number the next day. "People giving out the toll-free number has really kept us afloat, and that's key when you're a small business and can't get a forum with any of the major retail stores. I think the three keys to our success have been our product design, the packaging and the toll-free number."

Gary Andresen, vice president of marketing for Altigen, originally established that company's toll-free number for employees working in the field and certain dealers of their telecom servers.

"It was originally not used in our advertising literature at all," says Andresen. "We just used our regular number."

As the company grew, they realized that the target market of small business was very cost-conscious, and listing the toll-free number for their use to learn more about the products was smart business. Before the change, the toll-free number represented about 11 percent of Altigen's total long-distance bill, and now represents about 25 percent. Andresen estimates that 75 percent of all the users of the toll-free number are interested in obtaining more information about products.

"Our number has definitely helped our image," says Andresen. "Image is so important, and were a younger company. It gives us the image of a well-established business."

Like RBJ Manufacturing, the 800 version of the vanity number that spells A-L-T-I-G-E-N was taken, but the 888 version was available.

"It really doesn't cost that much," says Andresen. "The rates are very competitive, and I think if a business doesn't have one, they are at a real disadvantage. When people are looking through a magazine or a phone book, they are always going to make the free call first."

Getting a toll-free number set up is a simple process. Call your current long-distance carrier to get started. If you want a vanity number, the phone company will have to perform a search to see if that number is taken in either the 800 or 888 series. Bradford says his number was set up and ready in three to five days from his initial phone call.

Once a number is assigned, you may switch long-distance carriers without having to sacrifice the number. Costs vary, but there typically is a monthly charge along with a per-minute usage rate.

Like any new service, shop around to find out who has the most competitive prices. Even if you don't want to switch, you can often use the information from a competing carrier to get your current phone company to match the offer.