Phone users face inquiry confusion

AT one minute past midnight tomorrow callers to the 192 directory inquiries service will find themselves being directed elsewhere.After almost half a century the service has been told to disband by Oftel and in its place comes a whole range of 118-based numbers, created to break the BT monopoly.

AT one minute past midnight tomorrow callers to the 192 directory inquiries service will find themselves being directed elsewhere.

After almost half a century the service has been told to disband by Oftel and in its place comes a whole range of 118-based numbers, created to break the BT monopoly.

Business editor LYNN ANDREWS reports.

NO more 192, the simple to remember directory inquiries number is about to be no more, changed by order of telephone watchdog Oftel.

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From a number that was indistinguishable from any other phone helplines to a whole barrage of 118's it is to be hoped there is at least some improvement.

But with 15 choices eventually, the prospect is ominous with each and every one of the businesses behind the service trying to compete.

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One company, The Number, has the easiest call line to remember – 118 118.

They, however like some of the others, are based thousands of miles away and the call centre operators have little or know knowledge of this country.

Take the test call to 118 118 asking for the number of a Woolworth branch for example, the helper did not know of the name!

"I heard the woman asking her colleagues if they knew anything about Woolworth's, it was amazing," said the guinea pig enquirer.

Not surprising when you find out the call centre is based in the Philippines.

BT itself has been diverting calls to two centres in Delhi, India. Another company is based in Bangalore, India.

With many of the call centres based outside of the UK there is bound to be confusion with staff and with up to 15 companies being eligible to provide the service there is certain confusion for subscribers too.

Some companies will charge for the initial connection with extra for the duration of the call – in some test cases it has taken several minutes to find the number only for it to be the wrong one.

And there is no simple refund system for these errors and The Number, for example has been sending out cheques for silly amounts of 60p and 70p to customers.

All may be resolved through gained experience by the call centre staff or by some of these companies merging in to one, therefore making the choice of who to use simpler.

In the meantime, from tomorrow it will be up to us to let our fingers do the walking over our telephone dials to get that illusive telephone number that is not listed in our paper directories.

Companies providing directory inquiries from tomorrow are:

Conduit on 118 888; BT, 118 500; British Gas 118 511; Orange 118 000; Yell 118 811 and Cable & Wireless 118 099. The Number 118 118; Core Communications 118 114; One Tel 118 111; Telegate 118 866; Infonxx 118 811; Telewest Broadband 118 180; Telco 118 877 and Share 118 499.

BT's new voice of 118 500 is Suffolk actress Pat Whymark who has been doing professional voice-overs for 20 years.

She originally trained with BT to become an engineer and built mini transistors for undersea cables.

With that out of her system, Pat, who lives just outside Ipswich with her partner, actor Julian Harries and her two children, went off to drama school to follow her first love of acting.

"That wasn't my last connection with BT, however, because I got the job as the recorded voice of 192.

"I also was the voice of operator assistance on 100 and international directory inquiries," said Pat.

It was through connections at what was Radio Orwell, that Pat renewed her relationship with BT but acting roles for her voice have not been confined to telephone services.

"I write music for the theatre and have done TV documentaries, radio, children's talking books, in-flight safety videos and even interactive toys where I utter the immortal words `Well Done!'," she added.

The voice is already known by callers to the operator and directory inquiries services and will continue with 118 500.

Those of us who choose these digits as our source of finding that missing number will also have some idea of what the face behind the voice looks like.

History of directory inquiries:

A directory enquiry service has been in operation since the first telephone exchange was opened in London in 1879.

After 1912 when the Post Office took over running the UK telephone network, exchanges across the country started to operate their own specific enquiry services.

From the start until the 1970's numbers were located by enquiry staff from phone records. There were also 50 telephone directories covering the whole of the UK at their disposal.

192 has kept a record of some of the most unusual requests asked of their enquiry staff over the years, they include:

How to cook a turkey; Prince William's phone number; Celebrity phone numbers and for the payphone number in The Rover's Return, Coronation Street.

Callers have also asked to be: put through to Santa; for the number for the directory for ex directory numbers and for the fictional Sherlock Holmes detective agency and Hogwarts School.

But one which beats the rest was when someone asked for British Gas emergency number. The operator asked if the caller could smell gas and the reply was: "Yes, G-A-S".

What are your memories, funny, helpful or frustrating of 192?

And do you think this new multi-number system will be confusing?

Write to Your Letters, The Evening Star, 30, Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or e-mail

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