All day long we hear commercials calling out “call us toll free!” or “you can contact us on our hotline number”. The relationship between these different types of telephone numbers is confusing; a hotline number can be a toll free number, but a toll free number isn’t always a hotline number. Have we lost you yet?
The first thing to know about both types of numbers is this: They can be called at no cost to the caller.
What is a toll free number?
Toll free numbers were first used in the USA in 1967 by large companies for special events with high volumes of incoming calls, to protect usual day-to-day incoming business calls. These toll free numbers were handled by dedicated in-house teams, or outsourced to call centers. When they first appeared, companies were assigned numbers. After some time, these large and first-use companies were able to select their own number instead, and toll free numbers rose in popularity. Substantial growth came with the introduction of easy to dial phone numbers like 1-800-555 1234, and even more with memorable Vanity phone numbers like 1-800- CALLNOW (=1-800-2255669). Soon enough, small and medium-sized businesses found their way to toll free numbers as well. In 1993, the FCC began to offer portability: meaning that companies could keep their toll free numbers when moving or changing service providers.
Simply speaking, a toll free number costs nothing for its user. It’s generally a 1-800 number, used as an added value service number where callers can call for free, from anywhere, and all costs are paid by the organization who is offering the service line. These lines are used as support lines to help with substantive questions and/or complaints. That’s why, when calling their toll free numbers, a lot of organizations’ automatic call answering systems ask you to select a reason for calling before directing you to the right department.
What is a hotline?
Historically, hotlines refer to direct communication lines. Pop culture has given us the idea that a red telephone exists for direct calls between important parties in a time of war. Very literally you would be able to pick up the phone and be directly connected to the end user. Nowadays, a hotline in telecoms refers to a phone number used for large scale incoming calls, often in times of urgency, without fear of a service disruption.
These days, hotline phone numbers are commonly set up as exceptional and special events lines to connect people in need for specific information. In the case of large scale crises, like hurricanes or product recalls, they are set up as crisis hotlines via toll free numbers to ensure that the proper information is accessible to anyone who needs it.
So what is the difference between toll free numbers and hotline numbers? The difference is rooted in the amount of incoming calls an organization expects and is able to handle without service disruption.