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Do the Yellow Pages work? A true story of an expensive mistake.

In 2009 I was driving home after work. This being right before I set out on my own, I was looking at ways to advertise my new business. There I was on the phone with Yellow Pages. I had done some research wondering “Do the Yellow Pages work for businesses ?” I wasn’t finding much evidence one way or another. It’s hard to tell for most businesses. But the sales rep was so desperate to sell me an ad in the phone book he lied to get me to do it.

At the time everyone knew the Yellow Pages was mostly dead, but it wasn’t dead dead. I actually found good prospective clients from the Yellow Pages. For a lot of older people, the Yellow Pages was a place to go.

The Yellow Pages rep told me all the things they’d offer. Listing on their website, a spot in the book and…well, that was it. I just remembered a surprisingly ironic amount of time was spent telling me how awesome my ad would be on their website.

I was only interested in knowing how much a Yellow Pages ad costs. Turns out, it’s about $250. Every month. The “every month” part was conveniently left out.

To me it sounded like I got a Yellow Pages ad and a website listing (which I knew was useless, but I let the guy keep mentioning it) for $250. That was not true. It was actually $3,000.

You need to understand something about me for the rest of this story to make sense: I do not like debt. Who does, right? But I really don’t like debt of any kind. I don’t carry any except for a mortgage. I even got rid of my car so I didn’t have the noose of a car payment to deal with.

I also make it a point to think about things over the long-term. I don’t necessarily mind a monthly payment plan for things. It’s a great way to spread costs out and a lot of people can get great benefit from them. Some things, like water, power, and things that can vary month-to-month make sense on a monthly plan. I, however, only focused in on the $3,000 a year part.

After I agreed to the ad I got a bill a couple weeks later. That’s when I realized it was monthly, not one-time.

I would pay $250 for an ad in the Yellow Pages. Because why not? But I will not pay $3,000 for an ad in the Yellow Pages, because, seriously, it’s the Yellow Pages, not an address to the nation from the President about my business.

I was floored and mortified that I was committed to something that cost as much as a car that had practically no value in it. I’d happily spend $250 a month if I knew whatever I was buying would pay for itself or be a good investment. The Yellow Pages are not that. It’s a one-time thing with very fixed costs.

I immediately called and was legitimately furious. I don’t often get furious on a call with a business (unless it’s Comcast).

I ran my way up their call center chain of command until I got to a manager who promised to review the recording of the phone call. At issue here was whether or not I had ever been told, even once, that it was “per month”.

A few days later the manager called back and apologized. She said I was right and that at no point did the representative ever indicate it was “per month”. It was always billed as “$250”. I was told the rep had been “dealt with” and I “wasn’t the only one this happened to”. For managers, this is a cautionary tale of what happens when you play metric games with your employees.

I haven’t done business with the Yellow Pages since. But given how expensive their ad rates are, it’s no wonder they’re still able to clog everyone’s porch and doorsteps with their antiquated books.

And for the record, since the books had already been sent off to printing, I got an ad for just $250 and didn’t pay any more. I received no calls, no referrals, and no interest from that ad. It wasn’t even worth the $250.

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Photo of Justin Harter


Justin has been around the Internet long enough to remember when people started saying “content is king”.

He has worked for some of Indiana’s largest companies, state government, taught college-level courses, and about 1.1M people see his work every year.

You’ll probably see him around Indianapolis on a bicycle.

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