An Unfortunate Toll-Free Choice

November 1, 2013

5:34 pm

Whether you love Obamacare or would rather leave it, an unfortunate circumstance accompanied the launch of the online registration. Anyone who has selected an 800 number for his or her business knows that it’s important to choose one that’s easy to remember.

However, that should be done without insulting your customers. The number seemed innocent enough, though not necessarily easy to remember. It’s 1-800-318-2596, and Lachlan Markay of the Washington Free Beacon decided to see if he could come up with an easier way to remember it.

What Markay got was a surprise: the Obamacare line actually spells out 1-800-F1U-CKYO. Markay tweeted this because he found it amusing, but of course it soon went viral. You have to understand that no letters are connected to the number “1” on American telephones.

For many, this was a funny coincidence, but for critics of Obamacare, it seemed more like a hidden (and deliberate) message. The furor still hasn’t died down.

Hashtag this

Almost immediately, the hashtag #ObamacarePhoneNumbers went wild on Twitter. People were quick to offer up their own, less offensive alternative for the number.

Suggestions included 1-800-404-FAIL, 1-800-SOY-LENT, and 1-800-HOT-MESS, to name just a few. It was actually the US Department of Health and Human Services which had set up the number, and thus far, it hasn’t commented on what happened.

The Washington Times covered the story with the headline “Dialing for depravity?” Of course, the photo of President Obama scratching his head using his middle finger seemed the perfect illustration for these shenanigans.

It’s been compared to a Freudian slip, but more likely the department just accepted whatever 1-800 number it was randomly assigned. Here’s a lesson in patience and care: You never know what will happen if you let one thing slip through the cracks.

Nit picky

Obamacare supporters point out that the all important “U” is missing at the end of the phone number, and add that this isn’t an effective way to remember the number. However, the damage has already been done.

Even if you want to dig into the nitty-gritty of the situation, however, it’s clear that the number can spell out something very close to a curse. Overall, the kerfuffle over the toll-free number has garnered nearly as much attention as the actual rollout of Obamacare. It’s also an important reminder about just how crucial all aspects of business can be, even for the government.

These toll-free numbers have been around as long as most people can remember, and they’re not going anywhere. People want to be able to pick up a phone, talk to a human, and ask questions, especially when it concerns something as important as their health.

With Obamacare, there was a great opportunity to help with branding and get people started on the right note when they were reaching out to health care and insurance experts. Instead, one thoughtless decision to take a random 800 number led to Twitter bedlam and lots of jokes.

Lesson learned

The next time the government or any other organization gets a new phone number, it’s worth the time to tap into your creativity and send the right message. This is particularly true of such a prominent agency, but any business can benefit.

People aren’t going to remember a string of numbers, but they’ll remember a catchy message — for better or for worse. As the FU blunder is starting to die down, Americans are still left with a big decision: At the end of the year, what are they going to do about their health insurance coverage?

It’s time to start comparison shopping and figuring out their next move. At least Americans will be able to remember who to call to get their questions answered, even if they do have to face a slight insult to get there.

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Drew Hendricks is a professional business and startup blogger that writes for a variety of sites including The Huffington Post, Forbes and Technorati. Drew has worked at a variety of different startups as well as large advertising agencies.

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