All day long we hear commercials calling out “call us toll free!” or “contact us on our free 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 are toll free numbers?
In 1967, the United States saw the assignment of toll free numbers to 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. Eventually, larger companies were able to select their own number instead, leading to a rise in popularity.
Substantial growth came with the introduction of easy to dial phone numbers like 1-800-555-1234, and Vanity phone numbers like 1-800- CALLNOW (1-800-225-5669). Soon enough, small and medium-sized businesses found their way to toll free numbers as well. In the early 90s, the FCC began to offer number porting: meaning that companies could keep their toll free numbers when moving or changing service providers.
Simply speaking, toll free numbers cost 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’ Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems ask you to select a reason for calling before directing you to the right department.
What are hotline numbers?
Historically, hotlines refer to direct communication lines. Pop culture has given us the idea that a red telephone exists that could be immediately directed to important parties in times of war. Nowadays, a free hotline number 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 product recalls or the current COVID-19 crisis, they are set via toll free numbers. These numbers ensure that a) the proper information is accessible to anyone who needs it and b) that anyone who needs to share pertinent information has a designated place to do so.
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.