All customers are not created equal - especially when they call a toll-free number.

In an era when more of the nation's business is done over impersonal toll-free telephone lines, a growing number of companies are using new technology to give more-personalized service to their most important customers.As some companies describe it, singling out customers is a high-tech attempt to re-create a bygone era of small-town shopkeepers who knew the intimate details of their customers' lives. "We're trying to recapture something our grandparents and great-grandparents had when they walked into the corner haberdasher," said Mark Ambrose, executive director of global fulfillment strategy and security for Citicorp.

Companies also are using the new technology to reward their best customers with top-of-the-line service, while leapfrogging callers with much less potential for big profits.

At AT&T Corp., for example, when the very best customers call the main toll-free number, they are identified automatically by the phone number they're calling from and promptly steered to top sales agents for priority service.

At the discount brokerage house Charles Schwab & Co., the "high opportunity" customers - those who have large portfolios and/or those who buy or sell stock several times a day - have a special 800 phone number. The rest of Schwab's customers have to call the main toll-free number. But even there, there's a priority list. Customers who want to buy or sell stock jump to the top of the line, ahead of customers waiting to get their account balance or set up a new account.

Meanwhile, at the Northwest electric company PacifiCorp, calls about downed power lines and electrical fires get answered the fastest. But new customers get the next best service. Their calls not only automatically jump to the top of the waiting queue, but they're answered by the company's top employees.

"We seek to handle (new customers) on a higher priority because it's their first experience, and we'd like it to be a good first experience," said Dan Yates, manager of the company's Wasatch Business Center just outside Salt Lake City.

The growth in toll-free numbers has exploded in recent years, becoming an important tool in business. Ten years ago, only half of the nation's largest firms offered toll-free numbers; today, nearly 90 percent do, according to a recent survey done for the Society of Consumer Affairs Professionals in Business. Large businesses receive about 3,500 toll-free calls a week, compared with 260 letters or faxes.

And thanks to increasingly sophisticated telephone hardware and software, it's no longer first-call in, first-call answered. The voice-mail maze that bewilders some customers - "enter your account number and push the pound sign" - is used by some firms to determine which calls are the most important and should get answered first.

"It may not be pleasant for people to read that they're treated differently, but if you're better than an average customer you want to be treated differently," said Max Fiszer, president of Multicall Inc., which develops and sells computer telephone products for call centers that handle customer calls, especially those that come over toll-free lines.

With caller ID, many companies are able to differentiate among their clients within seconds - even before they press any numbers on the phone - and send them to special sales agents, usually without callers even knowing it.

For some companies, that means sending Spanish-speaking customers directly to agents fluent in that language. For others, such as computer firms, it means transferring callers directly to the experts who know all about the caller's computer system.

Still others, such as insurance companies, direct calls based on a customer's area code to agents who know the details of a particular state's laws and rates. In some cases, area codes are used to determine which calls should be answered the quickest. An international travel company, for example, recently decided to take calls from Canadians first because prices - and profits - are higher there. When and if that changes, the computer can be reprogrammed to give priority to calls from other area codes.

Americans have grown accustomed to that with the airlines' frequent-flier programs, Fiszer added, "but they have not yet accepted that notion in other parts of their lives."

It is the airlines' success with frequent-flier programs that has prompted other industries to segment their customers. For years, airlines have given their best customers priority service for check-in and seat assignments. Most also have given these customers their own toll-free number.

"The number they call is special so the system knows an elite or plat-i-num customer is calling," said Craig Andersen, director of frequent travel marketing for Trans World Airlines Inc. And those customers "get through faster and are queued ahead of others," with special sales agents designated to answer their calls. The reason is simple, Andersen said. "These are our best customers and are responsible for a large proportion of revenue. We want to make sure they're happy and not going somewhere else."

That same philosophy is driving other industries, particularly banks and utilities, to revamp their call centers.

During the past two years, Fleet Financial Group has spent about $10 million to update its four call centers, which together handle an average of 250,000 calls a day. "It's a busy place," said Ann Christensen, Fleet's director of telephone banking.

When a call comes in, information about the customer automatically pops up on a computer screen at the same time the call is answered. Among other things, the computer will tell a Fleet sales agent how many and what kinds of accounts the customer has with Fleet, what the customer called about most recently and whether the caller is responding to any marketing solicitations Fleet may have recently mailed out.

As part of its call center, Fleet has set up a loyalty program for "customers who are the most significant profit contributors," Christensen said. Calls by these customers, who make up about 20 percent of the bank's customers, are sent to a designated group of agents "who are empowered to make adjustments (in accounts) and expedite service."

If a loyal customer needs the last three years' worth of bank statements for a tax audit, they can be retrieved and sent within 24 hours, much faster than the bank would act for most of its customers, Christensen said. Also, "there's more likelihood" that the loyal customer would get some questionable bank charges dropped.

Additionally, Fleet has programmed the call center to make sure that the new business calls are answered before calls from customers making inquiries about their accounts. "It's just like shopping in a mall. If you're in a store and you don't get waited on right away, do you hang up or do you go away? Studies show that if it takes more than 10 seconds to answer a sales call, the call will be abandoned," Christensen said.

Quick service is critical in the world of call centers, said Nadji Tehrani, publisher and editor of Call Center Solution Magazine. "Seventy-five percent of all purchases are based on emotions; customers buy from a company because they like their sales representatives and they don't like to be bounced around from one person to another."

Nor do they like to be considered just another person waiting on line.

That's why Citicorp is trying to turn its call center into the old-fashioned corner store. "The haberdasher knew when you got paid, how much money you had, how many kids you had," Ambrose said. "How do we recapture that in a world in which contact is made through anonymous technology and where you might talk to Mark today and John tomorrow?" The answer, Ambrose added, will be "pivotal to our future."

Within the next two years, Ambrose said, "our vision is that when you contact Citibank, we will not only know who you are but we'll be able to know what business you've done recently" with the bank.

Some customers may regard this increasingly personalized service as an intrusion into their privacy and may try to program their phones to bar any identification, experts said. But that won't always work, said Yates. "Any time you call a toll-free number, the company you're calling is very likely to know what your phone number is even if you think you've blocked your caller ID, because the company paying for the call has control over that."

Even though Pacific Corp. usually knows who's calling, it has decided to have customers "re-key their phone numbers" after the call is answered. "We can almost say, `We know who you are, where you are and we suspect you're having a power outage because other customers have been calling.' But we've chosen not to because customers may think that's offensive."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

PacifiCorp phone call priorities

Here is how incoming calls are prioritized at PacifiCorp, parent company of Utah Power and Pacific Power:

When a call is received, the caller is asked to press a number to identify the type of call he is placing:

- Emergency calls (reports of power failures, downed lines) are answered first.

- Starting/stopping service calls get next priority. New customers go to the front of the line.

Existing customers who want to disconnect or move their service are next.

- Billing/account inquiries calls are answered next.

- General information calls are at the end of the line.

Source: Pacific Corp.