Doug Hallberg wants to order supplies from the field on his cell phone — and he’s not going to pay for it. The days of paying for air time while checking stock, placing orders and asking technical questions are over since his wholesaler, Pacific Plumbing Supply Company, started offering a service from Toll Free Cellular.

Since July 1996, Pacific Plumbing Supply Company, a Seattle-based wholesale plumbing and heating supply company, has seen its sales balloon from contractors like Hallberg since completing an exclusive deal with Toll Free Cellular.

But what does Toll Free Cellular do? And how does it help a contractor save money and a plumbing supply company in the Pacific Northwest average 58 new callers a month?

Toll Free Cellular, also headquartered out of Seattle, is one of the companies leading the nationwide digital revolution for contractors. Toll Free Cellular owns the patent and trademark on the equipment that allows customers to call companies from cellular phones for free.

Launched in Seattle in 1995, Toll Free Cellular has since grown to other markets. Now located in 11 markets — including Denver, Dallas, St. Louis and Atlanta — the company looks to be in 25 of the top 40 markets by the end of 1998.

Toll Free Cellular uses reverse billing, charging the cellular phone call to the company receiving it, not the user making it. Instead of dialing 1-800, customers dial #800 to activate the system.

Doesn’t seem like much — but the simple “#” symbol translates into savings for contractors and sales for hundreds of companies, including Pacific Plumbing Supply Company.

Saves Time and Money: “A lot of time I’m calling from on-site or between jobs,” says Hallberg, owner of Specialty Plumbing. “Pacific Plumbing cuts me the price, and I tell it right to the customer. It speeds up the whole process while saving me money.

“It makes the calls convenient,” says Hallberg, whose company just added its fifth truck. “When you’re spending 10 to 12 hours a day in your truck and on job sites that have no phones it’s nice to know that a call to Pacific Plumbing does not add to the phone bill. We can call, place an order, show up 20 minutes later and it’s ready on the docks.”

Hallberg says that since Pacific Plumbing Supply Company has offered the service, he’s turned 80 percent of his business their way.

“We’re finding a direct correlation between Toll Free Cellular and our sales,” says Dan Sherman, marketing manager of Pacific Plumbing Supply. “There’s a significant volume and customer retention.”

Pacific Plumbing Supply owns 21 Toll Free Cellular lines, and receives between 750–1,000 calls each month. They own the local #800-PIPE line, which costs over $1,000 per month.

When contractors call the “PIPE” line, they are prompted to whichever of the 10 local Pacific Plumbing Supply Company branches are closest to them.

“The major use is to allow plumbing contractors to call in orders, check inventories and ask questions about products,” Sherman says.

“The service is invaluable,” says Scott McInerny, owner of C&S Plumbing. “Being the sole proprietor, I need to be in touch with my wholesaler. When I’m driving down the road, I’ll call a couple times a day to check everything — stock, prices. You name it.”

Hallberg calls several times a day, as well.

“It’s not costing me anything,” Hallberg says. “Out here, it’s the person who can get the job done first, and get it done right who gets the job. That phone call gives me an advantage.”

Toll Free Cellular notices the difference.

“The construction industry was a fast starter for the company,” says Tim Kregor, vice president of marketing for Toll Free Cellular. “The reason it took off first was because the users are tied to their cell phones.

“We roughly serve 1,100 business with 2,000 phone numbers. We’re taking in between 150,000 and 175,000 phone calls a month. And we’re looking to expand.”

What does the expansion mean for the plumbing industry?

A chance for increased marketing, higher levels of customer service and new goals.

“There are companies that are looking for higher customer service levels. These companies are taking away the barriers from the wireless business. They want to focus on customer service,” Kregor says. “If you aren’t offering free cellular calling to your customers, you’re going to be at a competitive disadvantage.”

Pacific Plumbing Supply Company’s goal is to increase market share and presence in the Puget Sound area. The branches love getting telephone calls because they know someone is wanting something. When the phone rings, it means business, Sherman says.

“I promote the service to anyone who comes in,” says Tom O’Brien, manager of Pacific Plumbing Supply’s Issaquah branch. “It entices contractors to come to us. The service allows them to communicate with us better by not costing them an arm and a leg.”

O’Brien’s branch receives the second most calls from the service, behind the Seattle branch.

“The service pulls them in and then it’s up to us to give them quality service when they’re in the door,” says O’Brien, who runs the four–person branch. “The contractor is able to call from the middle of nowhere and we’re able to have the order waiting for him when he gets in. When they’re calling you, you’re developing business.”

That relationship keeps contractors like Hallberg coming back

“Sometimes I get into these little suburbs and call one of Pacific Plumbing’s branches,” Hallberg says. “They still get me in and out. They don’t pull favors for anyone — and that makes a difference.”

Marketing Benefits: Toll Free Cellular is working with Pacific Plumbing Supply Company on different marketing techniques. Besides sponsoring Pacific Plumbing Supply’s annual golf tournament in August, Toll Free Cellular has created plastic business cards with all the toll-free local numbers to Pacific Plumbing Supply on them. When you flip the card over, you get local #800 pizza parlors or movie theaters.

“We’ve been running out of these cards,” says Sherman. “The cards create another use outside of plumbing.”

“The service from Toll Free Cellular helps in other areas, too,” says Hallberg, who occasionally uses the service to call other construction companies for free. “One of our guys even called one of the toll-free numbers to get our truck towed when it broke down.”

Competition within the cellular industry has been cut-throat. By the end of 1995, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association said the average monthly bill for subscribers had dropped to $51. The average monthly bill has dropped nearly 60 percent since 1986, when it was $120.

The cut-throat competition in the cellular industry is playing into the hands of all three companies.

“Right now there is a real big push for air time packages,” Sherman says. “But as cost effective as these packages are there’s a point where you — as a customer — start looking to get free calls. Free is free.”

Realizing what the service has done for his family run business, Pacific is waiting for Toll Free Cellular to expand into the company’s other markets — Alaska and Hawaii.

“When the time comes that Toll Free Cellular expands to Hawaii and Alaska, we will definitely invest in the system,” he says. “The service has proven itself here.”

“Right now it is a mutual satisfaction,” says Sherman. “Everybody is extremely satisfied. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”