Companies put stamp of approval on electronic mail
While Internet mailboxes may not be clogged with million-dollar sweepstakes, electronic mail is providing companies and organizations with a potential global gold mine.
Businesses have discovered that e-mail is a fast, cost-effective way to communicate. It allows offices and clients across the world to converse without long-distance charges. And it provides entrepreneurs with new opportunities.
For Bridget Hawk, e-mail led to the creation of Tri State Tech, a computer components store in Uniontown, Fayette County, which opened last October.
"If you can't find a job," she said. "make your own."
Hawk estimates nearly all of Tri State Tech was created via e-mail. She made business contacts by visiting World Wide Web sites of various companies, sending an inquiry and beginning a dialogue.
She did her initial marketing, made contacts and began associations with two parts suppliers from California - Ashtek Inc. and Acer. "I had never heard of them before," she said. "The business was formed by word of mouth. I would never have found out about them if it hadn't been for the Internet."
She got much of her information by talking to people in the computer business who chat online. Also, Tri State Tech's network administrator, Jonathan Chance, is an import from California whom Hawk met on an Internet chat program.
About a third of her sales come in electronically. With her own business set to expand as a cybercafe opens March 1, she is now helping entrepreneurs in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana to set up similar businesses.
Electronic mail is also helping large companies forge lines of communication as they expand internationally.
Don Hamed, management information systems director for Mastech Corp. in Oakdale, said e-mail lets workers all over the world coordinate schedules. "With us being an international company, we use e-mail exclusively with the time zone differences between offices," he said.
Shea McKinney, supervisor of electronic communication for Fore Systems Inc. in Warrendale, agrees. "We've tried to sell the fact internally that it's much more effective to use as a sales and communications tool," he said.
Part of it is the speed with which communication can be sent. But, he added, it also helps employees who may have problems in regular conversations. "It helps a lot of the more technical types compete in a corporate environment."
McKinney deals with e-mail that comes in from Fore's web site. Many general inquires come to his "webmaster" address, but notes, "You don't just want to send mail to the webmaster. The trend now is to have special forms that steer the mail to the right address," he said.
In 1996, he said the company received from people who visited the site:
- 850 purchase inquiries;
- 1,300 questions dealing with technical support;
- 700 messages directed to various departments within the company;
- 100 people trying to contact old friends and acquaintances.
Internally, he estimates the average worker gets between 10 and 30 messages daily. McKinney receives between 60 and 70, with most of them coming from within the organization.
Another advantage of e-mail is the ability to include attachments - images or text documents - with the message. Each time mail is sent, a record is kept. If organized, companies can use these to build information databases.
Diane Pendergast, a sales agent with Northwood Realty in the North Hills, says this function has helped her interact with clients and the mortgage and inspection companies she works with but hasn't totally changed her job.
While Pendergast sends photos of homes and market listings electronically to potential buyers, "I still have to use snail mail to send guides," she said.
"It is great if you have to pass on information. If (a client) is leaving the next day, I can get an inspection attached to an e-mail and print it out for them." She also includes her web address in her e-mail signature for people to visit for more information.
Though she has not had time to do so herself, she would like to see all of the information eventually stored in an on-demand database available on the Internet. "No company is going to be a keeper of information," Pendergast said. "They're providers and sorters."
Providing an online source of information was the goal for Mary Bates, membership director for the local chapter of the Society of Women Engineers. Her "Ask An Engineer" page was originally designed as a question-and-answer forum for students interested in engineering.
It began in September 1995. The response, she says, overwhelmed her. Highly detailed technical questions - such as how to build structures or do physics problems - began coming in with the general questions she had expected. "Some questions were obviously from somebody in the field," Bates said.
While the previous questions and answers are still on the site, she took the question submission portion offline in December as she and the society reassess the site before making it available again.
Bates would like to move away from the technical side as well as get more key members set up with their own e-mail accounts. "The only way a lot of chapters communicate is between representatives in the region," she said. "It would help us network better."
Pendergast echoes this sentiment in the real estate field. "I think I'm utilizing (e-mail) to its greatest capacity because all of the people aren't online yet," she added.
Grant Oliphant, director of communication at The Heinz Endowments, says organizations should help Pittsburgh become aware of advances in technology and bring more people online in the area. "Because of the academic base, Pittsburgh has terrific assets to make use of technology," he said. "We would like to see us become one of the premier wired communities."
As the Internet has grown, e-mail programs have become readily available. Internet service providers typically provide a mail program to subscribers, and some programs, like Eudora, can be downloaded from the World Wide Web.
Most versions of the two most popular World Wide Web browsers - Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer - have electronic mail built in, giving users everything in one package.
McKinney expects browsers and web sites to allow even more interaction as they integrate chat functions.
Apollo Trust Co. in Armstrong County was one of the first financial institutions to offer users the option of banking via personal computer. Apollo Trust is also an Internet service provider.
To Executive Vice President Ray Muth, this is an excellent marketing tool for his audience. "We can broadcast our rates over a wide area," he said. "Just a small push of a button and the information goes out to everyone who has e-mail here."
But while there are differences among businesses, one thing tends to remain the same among e-mail users: enthusiasm for the medium.
"Isn't it wild?" Muth said. "I just love this. You get stuff in the middle of the night from kids or someone in Timbuktu interested in your business. You can communicate with a whole audience that you wouldn't have had before."
EDITOR'S NOTE: All of the companies, organizations and individuals in this art icle were first contacted by e-mail, electronic chat or Internet newsgroup.
|Selling Interaction: Cybercafes now serving|
No computer? No coffee? No problem. Just log on at your neighborhood cybercafe.
Cybercafes - part coffeehouse, part computer lab - began appearing in western Pennsylvania in June when Java Jeff's, a coffeehouse in Squirrel Hill, added three computers with fast Internet connections to its regular menu.
Connections at cafes allow computer experts and novices to send electronic mail, surf the Internet, play games or chat with other users around the world.
Two other commercial cybercafes have opened since the first. Interstellar Cafe landed on the South Side in October, and La Prima Cybaircafe took off at Pittsburgh International Airport, Findlay Township, in January.
Another attraction of the cybercafe is avid computer users can come out and interact with people rather than with just a screen. "With what technology has been doing lately, the user is home alone and married to the computer," said Tony Perle, owner of Interstellar Cafe. "(The cafe) brings it all into a social atmosphere."
These cafes are also a creative and effective way to pass time, according to Nik Rokop, owner of La Prima Cybaircafe. "One thing that drove me to the airport location was as modern an airport as this is, it lacked a communication facility, which is what I am putting in here," he said.
Crowds come to his three machines for a variety of reasons. Pilots and travelers come to check the weather for the trip ahead. Business travelers check stock quotes or visit their company's page on the World Wide Web. Others are just there to pass the time.
"I've seen people forget how long they've been on and run off to catch a plane," said Rokop.
Seton Hill College in Westmoreland County introduced its students-only cafe, Cyber Castle, in September. Cyber Castle's main rule? No homework allowed.
Barbara Aupperle, associate dean of student services, said Cyber Castle was developed as a purely social setting. "There are no printers and no word processing software. They are to be used for fun as opposed to other computer labs," she said.
Students can buy coffee and sweets while they chat with computer users from across the world, play games, or search cyberspace. "If a person is fearful of using a computer, it's a pleasant way of becoming comfortable," Aupperle said. "It's deemed educational without being an academic pursuit."
A fifth Internet cafe, Digital Grind, is set to open March 1 in Uniontown, Fayette County. Bridget Hawk, owner of the cafe and its parent company, Tri State Tech, has an educational and social purpose in mind. "The goal is for kids that can't afford a computer to come in and learn," she said.
Digital Grind's plans call for 10 computers and an operational classroom for web surfing, software demonstration and education. In addition, the location plans to feature a lounge-type setting for adults with a big-screen television attached to a computer.
Here is a listing of western Pennsylvania's commercial Internet cafes in the order in which they opened:
Java Jeff's, Squirrel Hill
- Date opened: June 26, 1996
- Services offered: Three computers with e-mail, World Wide Web, inter-relay chat, telnet, word processing, games, laser printing
- Computer rental: 9 cents a minute
- Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Interstellar Cafe, South Side
- Date opened: Oct. 5, 1996
- Services offered: Six computers with e-mail, World Wide Web, laser printing, scanning
- Computer rental: $4.50 an hour (varies for different amounts of time)
- Hours: Open 24 hours
Cyber Castle, Seton Hill College, Westmoreland County
- Date opened: September 1996
- Services offered: E-mail, World Wide Web, games, chat
- Open only to Seton Hill students
- Date opened: January 1997
- Services offered: Three computers with e-mail, World Wide Web, America Online, telnet, video software and conferencing
- Computer rental: $2.75 for 15 minutes
- Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Digital Grind, Uniontown, Fayette County
- Opening date: March 1, 1997
- Planned services: 10 computers with e-mail, World Wide Web, software previews, games
- Planned rental charge: $5 an hour