PROFILE: Merry Chris Moss - Chris Moss, Chief executive, The Number

"I see myself as a bit of an agent provocateur," Chris Moss enthuses. "I love change. When things are constant it's as dull as ditchwater. I'm not very tolerant of dullness."

Having galvanized the airline industry at Virgin Atlantic and the mobile phone market with Orange, Moss is about to apply his disruptive treatment to the hitherto uniformly dull matter of directory enquiries as chief executive of The Number.

The directory enquiries market has just been opened to competition, ending another BT monopoly. Instead of dialling 192, consumers have a plethora of six-digit number services from which to choose, all starting with 118.

The Number - the brand name chosen for the US company Infonxx's entry into the liberalised UK market - uses the easy-to-recall 118118. Infonxx is the biggest directories player in the US.

While competition has attracted hordes of new entrants, experience from abroad suggests two or three companies will survive the scrap for customers.

Moss is promising a richer, friendlier service than 192 presently delivers.

To him, the competition is predominantly BT, the main incumbent with its revamped 118500 service.

The David and Goliath parallels with his past are clear. "When you're working for an airline it's really difficult to get people to take a test drive. Until they tried us out, people believed genuinely that British Airways was better because it had been there longer." He relived the scenario with Orange, taking on BT with its Cellnet brand and Vodafone. Moss says his biggest achievement was persuading a reluctant chief executive Hans Snook to adopt the brand name Orange instead of MicroTel. "Once Chris has the taste for something, he won't give in," says Snook. "He has the courage of his convictions.

The Number's advertising, which breaks early next year, reunites Moss with Orange's launch agency WCRS. All he volunteers is that its tone will be "engaging".

Moss is fostering a relaxed culture at The Number's Cardiff call centre to keep spirits high and the customer experience positive. Staff have a masseuse on-hand and can spend their breaks playing computer games and table football or in a music room. And there's an emphasis on bonuses.

"We are not building a call centre, but a brand that involves all the employees. We must reward those winning the business day in and day out."

Moss is convinced the industry will transform from directory enquiries to "directory assistance". Instead of 'Which name and town?', The Number's staff open each call with 'How can I help?' As well as call connection and texting numbers to customers' mobiles, it will provide more general services such as cinema listings and restaurant searches. "It's all about winning and engaging customers and getting them to participate in what you are doing. I love finding ways of having a laugh with your audience."

Occasionally his creativity has backfired. "When Virgin started flying out to JFK as well as Newark, we sent out apples to business-class customers saying you could have two bites at the Big Apple," he recalls. "Somehow one box got into the hands of a Territorial Army officer who suspected it was Semtex and called in the bomb squad. I was in Japan for a Pacific balloon crossing with Richard at the time. He came out clutching a fax, grinning: 'You bastard, you made the front page of Today'. It read 'Branson sends out 70,000 bomb hoaxes'. As far as he was concerned it was great publicity for the airline."

Branson lured Moss to Virgin in 1985 from his first marketing job at boat-racing firm The Tolman Group. Branson declares: "Chris played an important role in creating the Virgin Atlantic brand and unmasking BA's dirty tricks in 1991. I always enjoyed working with him because he was creative, good-natured and very funny. He is always at his best chasing the tail of big lazy brands."

Moss is acutely sensitive to corporate interference. He once suggested introducing a tongue-in-cheek flight tariff called 'middle class', between business class and economy, but the Americans vetoed it. "It's now called 'premium economy'. How dull and boring is that? Virgin should be ashamed of itself - that betrays its roots," he says.

Moss' touch isn't infallible. His brand consultancy Red Zebra planned a competitor to lastminute.com called nextweekend.com. Perhaps fortunately, it never got off the ground.

Moss predicts the directory enquiries market will swell from 800 million calls a year to 1.5 billion and wants one-in-three people to become regular users of 118118.

Ironically, he admits to being useless at remembering numbers. Moss is dyslexic and left school with no qualifications. "Dyslexia is a word that can only have been dreamt up by somebody who didn't understand it. Plenty of great inventors are dyslexic. Rather than being a learning difficulty, I think it's more about an inability to retain stuff that is irrelevant."

During his spell merging Lloyds and TSB as director of brands, Moss handed out mince pies to all marketing staff at the end of the year. Staff there referred to him as head of light entertainment.

Directory enquiries looks set for a substantial dose of Chris Moss cheer.

BIOGRAPHY

1985-1993: Marketing director, Virgin Atlantic

1993-1995: Marketing director, Orange

1995-1998: Director of brands, Lloyds TSB

1998-2002: Chief executive, Red Zebra

2002: Chief executive, The Number

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