It began as a normal call to directory assistance.
The caller wanted the telephone number to the Buffalo Cafe, but there was a problem -- there was no such place.
"Sorry, no listing." Normally, that would have been the end.
But for AT&T directory-assistance agent Lamar Barnes it was just the beginning. He continued to search. The caller knew the state and the general location.
He asked more questions. "What street was it on? What was it near?"
After a few minutes he had the answer: the telephone number to the Bison Frontier Restaurant in New Rockford, N.D.
Directory assistance ain't what it used to be -- the telephone industry says it's a lot better.
Ever-increasing competition for consumer dollars is expanding the boundaries of telephone service worldwide. Companies looking to attract new customers while holding on to old ones are introducing new services as fast as technology and communication law allow.
Among those new features are long-distance directory-assistance services that compete directly with the old "area code plus 555-1212" system -- once the consumer's only option.
In the past two years, two of the major long-distance telephone companies -- AT&T and MCI Worldcom -- as well as most of the larger local service providers have entered the directory-assistance market with new national services. But getting reliable information has become something of a gamble because so many companies are getting into the directory-assistance business.
Information databases vary widely, depending on which telephone company you use and where you want to call. Some days it may seem that you have a better chance of hitting the Lotto jackpot than getting the correct number to Lotto Georgia.
In an Augusta Chronicle survey of standard long-distance
directory-assistance accuracy, op-erators supplied wrong numbers about 20 percent of the time. Some of that is human error, but part of it can be attributed to inaccurate data.
"We are always trying to improve our database," said Martha Rice, manager of the AT&T directory-assistance center in Augusta.
While some AT&T centers still specialize in the old "555-1212" brand of directory assistance, the Augusta office is one of three "00 Info" centers nationwide.
When Mrs. Rice began as a directory-assistance operator 30 years ago, the "database" was on paper, with updates printed out each morning.
"It was just a big phone book," she said.
Operators thumbed through the giant volumes of numbers using a technique known as "flip, search and scan," Mrs. Rice recalled.
Now with the aid of computerized databases, operators can search for numbers in a variety of ways and expand searches by geographic area. The new brand of directory assistance is supposed to be more sophisticated and more helpful to the customer. On many calls, computers do half the work.
BellSouth's directory-assistance service relies on automated routing software designed to recognize the human voice and direct calls to the proper operator. Only after the caller states the name of the city, state and desired listing to the computer does another human enter into the process.
Other companies have taken just the opposite approach. AT&T and MCI Worldcom's new services use human operators through the entire process. The one thing all the companies have in common is access to information in all area codes through one number.
"That method of dialing has its advantages because you don't have to know the area code where you are calling," said Mark Siegal, spokesman for AT&T, which began offering "00 Info" service in the fall of 1997.
While it still offers the traditional "555-1212" service, the company is hoping to encourage customers to dial information more often through a more personal, customer-service-oriented approach.
Not only can customers get traditional information, but those who dial "00" can get help with more complex telephone dilemmas.
You can call "00" if you have a name, but not the city, or the city but just part of the name, said Mrs. Rice, 00 Info center manager.
Operators are trained to help customers with little information to go on.
"Just as long as they give us a few identifiers, we can try to find it," she said.
Through the "Yellow Pages" service customers can ask for the number for a criminal lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., or a florist near a hospital in San Francisco. Connection to the number is free.
Naturally, the personalized service can be time-consuming. Calls average about 48 seconds each.
"At one time we took about 200 calls in two hours. Now its about 100 calls," said AT&T agent Mr. Barnes. "The double-0 calls take a little more time."
Consolidating nationwide service at a few directory-assistance centers makes economic sense, but knowledge of local geography and the pronunciation quirks of local place names is lost in the process. Someone using the local pronunciation of Cairo ("kay-row"), Ga., or Martinez, might stump an operator working in Pennsylvania, for instance.
AT&T has training programs to help educate its operators in these areas, but experience is still the best teacher, said Mrs. Rice.
Still, it may be easier to get a phone number from some areas of the country than others.
"Louisiana is a real challenge for some of our people," she said.
Even with the aid of the latest technology, the Augusta AT&T center has just an 85 percent accuracy record, Mrs. Rice said.
Like all phone companies, AT&T has to purchase phone-number data from the hundreds of local-telephone-service providers nationwide. And, while federal law requires companies to share data at a reasonable cost, what is "reasonable" is often a matter of contention, said Andy Boisseau, another AT&T spokesman.
"I think we have negotiated contracts with most of those companies to get the data," said Mr. Boisseau, adding that some companies still supply edited or incomplete information.
With the ever-escalating competition for customers always in mind, some companies are reluctant to share customer databases -- and possibly lose those long-distance customers to competitors.
"It varies from company to company. We get something that has been massaged a little bit from one or two companies. The rest of them we pretty much get everything."
Sharing data across incompatible computer systems further complicates things.
"The accuracy rate is one of the larger issues," said K.C. Choi, spokesman for the Telecommunications Research and Action Center, or TRAC, a nonprofit industry group.
"Many of the companies are using information that is (outdated), he said. "It costs a lot to maintain an accurate database. Using that (old) information is much cheaper."
The service is a cash cow for phone companies. Most average about $1 per call, and connection fees can further boost profits.
So it's no wonder phone companies are leaping over each other to get into the directory-assistance business. Some industry experts estimate the directory-assistance market at about $3 billion a year.
A good percentage of that money could be made from giving out wrong numbers, since many callers never ask for refunds when it happens, Mr. Choi said.
"I think the big issue is the wrong numbers," he said.
But neither TRAC nor the Federal Communications Commission has studied the accuracy or reliability of the various directory-assistance services.
Phone companies and federal authorities say the problem is probably not that great. Of 52,000 letters of complaint received by the FCC last year, only 60 were about directory-assistance service.
Traditional national directory assistance (area code-555-1212):
Available to all telephone users. Must know the area code before you dial.
COST: AT&T, Sprint and MCI Worldcom charge $1.40 a call for two numbers. AT&T and Sprint charge an additional 50 cents to connect a number. MCI Worldcom charges 35 cents to connect the call. Charges may vary with other long distance providers. Call your long-distance phone company for refunds or complaints.
BellSouth national directory assistance (411):
Available to all BellSouth customers.
COST: 85 cents a call for two numbers. Connection to number not available. Call 780-2800 for refunds and complaints.
AT&T 00 Info:
Live operators search for numbers or offer help with "yellow pages" assistance in finding numbers for businesses in a particular area. Available to AT&T customers. Others may dial 10-10 ATT-00 or (800) CALL-ATT and charge the service to their home billing number.
COST: 99 cents a call for two numbers. No additional charge to connect to a number. Call (800) 222-0300 for refunds or complaints.
MCI Worldcom 10-10-9000:
A live operator assists in finding up to two desired listings and connecting the call. Available in most areas. May not be available to Augusta BellSouth customers.
COST: 99 cents a call for two numbers. No additional charge to connect to a number. Call (800) 444-3333 for refunds or complaints.
About our survey
The Augusta Chronicle surveyed standard (area code-555-1212) long-distance directory-assistance accuracy by requesting numbers from operators in eight states.
Twenty numbers were requested, divided among residential, business and various government listings. Of the 20 requests, operators supplied four wrong numbers -- an 80 percent accuracy rating.
Operators supplied three correct numbers in Georgia and Minnesota but failed with a Los Angeles listing. The operator gave the number for a person with a similar name, but not the number requested.
No mistakes. Operators supplied correct numbers for businesses in Georgia, Kansas and Florida.
Overall, government numbers seemed to cause the most problems for directory assistance. Local government numbers in Aiken and Statham, Ga., were no problem, but the number to Clerk of Superior Court in Athens, Ga., proved too much. We were given Walton County Superior Court instead.
And when we asked for the Walton County Fire Department, the number supplied was to the Atlanta Fire Department. Ask for the Jacksonville, Fla., Fire Department, you are just as likely to get the Jacksonville Beach Fire Department.
We fared better with state and federal government numbers. The only problem came with a request for a number to the U.S. Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. The operator couldn't find it. But when it was requested through another service it came up with no problem.
S.B. Crawford can be reached at (706) 823-3217 or scraw@augusta chronicle.com.