By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
There's a new, free directory enquiries service. The bad news? It uses voice recognition software. Selfridges, Westminster Abbey, National Rail Enquiries... I'm sorry we can't find that number.
The free service wants to win back lost enquiries customers
There's no such thing as a free number. That's the subliminal (automated) message from the latest attempt to lure back missing customers to directory enquiries.
The opening up of the market three years ago brought dozens of different services and baffling charges. It was successful - in stopping large numbers of people using directory enquiries altogether.
And now 118 118, the market leader, is trying to strike back by offering a free service.
Except there's a problem - well, two minor problems. First, when you ring the new free service it's peppered with advertising. If you're standing in the rain wanting a number in a hurry, who wants a hyperactive gym bunny shouting "Get moving" in a health club advert?
Minor problem two. The automated service doesn't always have much luck with getting the right phone numbers in our straw poll.
It's the Christmas shopping season, so we try to get a number for Selfridges in Oxford Street, London. No luck two out of three times, using different male and female voices.
How about Westminster Abbey, one of the UK's most popular tourist destinations (and a working cathedral to boot). Again two out of three attempts failed, with calls lasting up to a couple of minutes each.
Directory Enquiries was once free
But a number for Edinburgh Castle was identified with no problem - and a local delicatessen with a tricky name also proved successful first time.
But an enquiry for "National Rail Enquiries" drew a blank.
How about a number for the Palladium Theatre, where hit musical 'The Sound of Music' is currently playing? After an advert for an emergency plumber, the search does provide a number. Ring this, and there's another recording saying the number has been changed.
With residential numbers, the service seems to struggle with long addresses, but hits the jackpot if provided with the full postcode. And if it works, you've saved the cost of an enquiry that could be anything from 29p to £2.
This service, launched on Monday, is still only a test version, says William Ostrom, spokesman for 118118. The first month will be used to tackle any teething problems and to gauge customer reaction.
The automated search process will be "fine tuned", he says, but machines will always have limits and "nothing beats having a trained operator".
But he says that the firm's experience in the United States suggests that phone users will accept the trade-off of listening to adverts in exchange for a free service.
And in the UK, he accepts the challenge is to attract back customers who stopped using directory enquiries when the old 192 service was scrapped in 2003.
"People were very confused about what was replacing 192 - and we worked out that the only way was to offer a completely free service, because nothing else would reassure them."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I've tried the service as a test: Zero out of 3. The numbers for three well-known shops were searched but after a lengthy wait, nothing was forthcoming. I won't use this service, because it is neither quick nor convenient. The internet works for me very well, and I'll carry on using it to look for contact details.
Deborah Chan, London
Changing 192 to 118118 was almost as stupid and as big a crime as changing Opal Fruits to Starburst!
Why have all of these different directory enquiry number why can't we have one point of contact as it was before!
I'd try this service if only to test my staple strategy with voice recognition - push random buttons until a) it gives up and dies, or b) grudgingly puts you through to a real person.
People can always ring their nearest large library, as many still have complete sets of telephone books, and access to the Internet. The staff are usually very willing and knowledgeable and can find a number for someone for any part of the UK.
Lucy Cross, Hemel Hempstead
I have phone books, I have Google. If I can't find it with those I don't bother.
Nick Hersey, Herts
Last time I tried to use directory enquiries, I dialled 118 and then guessed something. That service was a disaster. They could barely speak English, and kept on putting me on hold to boost their revenues. Never again - what I do now, is use the free service on the internet. It's the same database as used by the call centres, only you can do it yourself, faster and for free.
Bah Humbug Dave, Croydon
I had to rush my wife into hospital and then needed to phone the people we'd hurriedly left our son with. Because we had been in a rush I didn't have the phone number with me. The payphones wouldn't let me phone out to a directory enquiry service at all - so much for the much vaunted consumer choice. I had to phone someone whose number I did know in my head, get them to find a 118 service, and then call them back a few minutes later for the number. Strangely, it wasn't the kind of hassle I needed at the time. All I wanted (and still want) is a simple 192 service, even if I have to put 30p in the phone.
The idiots who pushed through deregulation ignored the fact that directory enquiries is a public service not a cash cow for private companies. Bring back one enquiries number and run it as a public service, by a public service with no advertising and no charge. After all if you're trying to get a number you're going to ring the damn thing anyway and put money into the phone company coffers.
David Parker, Bristol
So "opening up the market" was good for the consumer. Just like privatising the railways, it's a complete mess. The only purpose of these companies is to make money. The "service" is a by-product. Thank goodness for the internet. I never have any problems with finding a number using it. And in my case, it really is free.
Why was a perefectly good, useful, competent and throroughly understood 192 service wrecked for the sake of a Free Market, where I suspect many suppliers went down the pan. the 118 etc service is confusing and all I hear is horror stories of incompetence and revenue building. I haven't used it, don't know how to, don't know which number to ring, and probably use the phone much less because of it. Speech recognition doesn't seem like a way forward, especially if nuisanced by Ads.
Chris Dupres, Smallfield, Surrey
Great idea! - when it is debugged it will be great, until then I will stick to the Net.
Tony Adams, St Albans
I no longer trust the business ethics/quality of information offered by directory enquiry numbers due to the extortionate prices charged for telling you that "no such person exists", when you know you phoned them last week and stupidly forgot to write down their number. At least with the old BT you felt that they held correct information as they provided all the services.
Graham Turner, Tenterden, Kent
I used the directory service well, till it was privatised, I haven't used it since. What a surprise, people aren't willing to spend two pounds to get a phone number, what genius thought they would? Once again the government makes billions selling something that doesn't work and that it doesn't own, to stupid people with more money than sense.Come on, own up, who else saw this one coming?
Ever since the 192 free service disappeared I have only used the 118 services a couple of times. I have tried this free service and again I found it very poor, with adverts thrown in to make the experience awful. I will still rely on the good old-fashioned phone directory or the more up to date version on the Internet. It's the same story that Britain has unfortunately become synonymous for, if you want a service, no matter what it is, you're ripped off, bad service, high prices, and because every company does it there is no real alternative.
Tom Probert, Caerphilly, Cardiff
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