When talking about information technology, the telephone gets downright dissed. Maybe it's because of its age — we've been using it to communicate information since 1876. We just take it for granted.

We talk about how to answer the phone properly, and how to handle those phone ups but discussion concerning IT issues usually ignores the phone.

Instead, we like to talk about the latest computer technology, integration, Internet and email leads. What kind of high tech information can the phone provide anyway?

Quite a bit. Dealerships today can know exactly who's calling, where those customers are calling from and what they are calling about. And those dealerships are using that data to reduce advertising costs and increase their sales.

It's possible because of a little known law. It stipulates companies that have toll free numbers, because they are paying for the phone call, are entitled to know who's calling them.

About five years ago, Lonnie Benson, founder of Fox Communications, a telecom company in Kirkland, WA, recognized this as a profitable business opportunity. Car dealerships proved to be a natural fit.

The company, appropriately named Who's Calling, Inc., garners phone call data at a telecom switch and streams it to a database. The company has a patent pending on the technology.

“We can extrapolate massive amounts of information just from the phone number,” says company president and COO, Fred Wright. Names and addresses are examples of the types of data available.

This involves some integration of data from various outside sources, but it's available just from having the phone number.

Using the collected data, Who's Calling builds 35 real time and graphical reports for dealerships. Every phone call is captured and included in the report. This includes calls that are unanswered, numbers that are unlisted or use caller ID blocking services.

The personal data can be integrated into several customer relationship management (CRM) applications using Call Sync, a tool developed by Who's Calling.

Within three minutes of the phone call's completion, Call Sync exports the prospect data, including name address and phone number into the CRM database.

Dealers can see the length of each phone call, how many phone calls went unanswered and the time each call occurred. “We've seen dealerships change the hours they were open based on the data,” says Wright.

Dealers also are able to measure the effectiveness of their ad campaigns. Who's Calling provides each dealership with a bank of several toll free numbers. Each ad campaign gets its own number. Some dealerships use as many 30 different numbers.

The reports can be broken out by campaign letting dealers see what advertising is working.

An added service is Voice View, a call recording system that allows the dealer to listen to each call using the Internet or the phone.

So far, more than 2,000 dealerships use Who's Calling. In 2001, Van Tuyl, Inc., one of the country's largest dealer groups provided the company with $1.5 million in funding.

Ron Rush Lincoln Mercury in Columbus, OH, was able to reduce its advertising expenses to $182 per vehicle and increase its sales 8.3% in 2001 by using Who's Calling.

As a result, the store received the Dealership Innovation Award from USA Today and the National Automobile Dealers Association in April of this year.

“We expected to confirm a lot of the things we believed in were working, but we were surprised,” says the store's general manager, Mark Rush, who holds a Ph.D.

“Of course, we advertised in the local paper on the weekends but the number of calls we received was terrible. On the other hand, the modest rags, like Autotrader, on the grocery store newsstand were another story,” he says.

Rush believes that's because the people who pick up those types of magazines are in the market for a vehicle. Although newspapers provide greater reach, not all of their readers are in the market to buy vehicles.

Rush is such a big believer in the product, he showed it to his Twenty Group.

He says, “John Wannamaker (founder of the Wannamaker Department store chain) said, ‘Half the money I spend in advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half.’ Well, now we can know,” says Rush.

All because of the telephone.