A New Yorker got an unexpected surprise recently when he called the general-information number for the Fontaine Global Growth Fund. He wanted to get some numbers, including how well the mutual fund has performed this year. Guess what? The telephone "field representative" turned out to be Richard Fontaine himself, the fund's founder and portfolio manager.
Mr. Fontaine is considered somewhat of a guru within the mutual-fund industry, having successfully predicted the stock market crash of October 1987. His fund was the top-ranked global stock fund for the first quarter of 1996, up a hefty 64 percent. So why was a person of Fontaine's stature answering the toll-free phone line? "Everyone else was busy," he laughs. "Besides, I wouldn't want to miss a sale!"
You may not make contact with a fund-company boss each time you call an 800 number, but it happens more frequently than you might suspect, especially at smaller firms, fund officials say. Like all managers, they hate a ringing phone.
Whoever answers, 800 numbers - and sometimes 900 numbers - are now among the most important resources of the financial-services industry. Most major institutions offer them, including banks, insurance firms, mutual-fund companies, and investment houses. It pays, as a customer, to know how to use these lines.
Toll-free numbers have democratized the world of finance, allowing small investors to use their home phone to obtain up-to-date information or transact business, whether you are at home, at 30,000 feet in a jet airplane, or catching a day of sun at the beach.
Bank lines allow you to check balances or make transfers from one account to another. At some banks, you can leave recorded messages for officials.
Mutual funds let you call in to check balances and earnings, transfer money within a fund family (such as from a money-market account to an equity fund). Redeeming shares by phone can cut days off a similar transaction handled through the mail. (You might even be able to have your money sent electronically to your bank account.)
"The 800 number has been very, very important to the securities industry," says Perrin Long Jr., considered by many the "dean" of financial analysts monitoring US securities firms. "Just about every branch office now has its own 800 number. Discount brokerage houses, such as Charles Schwab & Co. and Quick & Reilly, do a sizable part of their [trading] business, perhaps 10 percent to 20 percent, on the 800 line."
The numbers have also allowed firms to shift "back-office" processing departments to lower-cost communities, such as Tampa, Fla., Hoboken, N.J., and Brooklyn, N.Y., Mr. Long says. "You can route a call anywhere you want. All the customer knows is that he's talking to the firm. The customer has no idea where the office is located."
At giant Fidelity Investments, the nation's largest fund group, reps are located in five cities around the country. Fidelity gets 577,000 calls a day on average, a spokeswoman says. The lines are staffed by 3,443 representatives.
If you want to dial up a company but don't know its number, try calling the 800-number directory at 800-555-1212. (Since there aren't enough 800 numbers to go around, some lines will now have the prefix 888.)
Precisely because of the success of the 800 number, financial firms are looking for alternatives. Some may locate telephone help on 900-line extensions for which there is a charge, Long says. Some companies hope phone-call volume will be reduced when they ask customers to pay directly for their calls, rather than having the company initially absorb costs, as is the case with the 800 line. Long attended one recent annual meeting of an investment firm where company officials talked about diverting trading business to the Internet, in part to let customers pay for the computer linkup with the brokerage house.
Costs of 800 calls, while picked up by the financial house, are "eventually passed along to customers," Long notes, either through promotional fees or maintenance charges.
Brokerage-house representatives say customers particularly like self-help 800 numbers because of the sense of "privacy" they offer. When conducting transactions, there is usually no intervention by an operator or service representative. All you have to do is punch in your private code. That code should be zealously protected, since it allows access into your accounts.
Still, the sense of privacy is somewhat illusory. At most brokerage houses and mutual-fund offices, a printout of the day's trading activity will appear somewhere and can be scrutinized by company officials or by clerical workers doing routine tasks, such as mailings. In the case of large transactions, $10,000 or more, security officials may also scan trading patterns, to ensure that everything is above board. And calls made to service representatives are often taped or monitored for quality-control purposes. So, be nice to your service rep.