Volume 17, Number 8
December 2000

Internet Roadmap

Trends and Thoughts

By Edward Poll

While visiting Kansas City, Missouri, recently for my mother-in-law's ninetieth birthday celebration, I visited a local antiquarian bookstore that I had discovered years ago. I was distressed to learn that this was the last day of the store's operation at that site. They were closing the store and moving the inventory to the proprietor's home, to conduct all future business on the Internet.

I first thought how sad it was that this store would no longer be available for browsing, for picking up a book because the cover attracted you, and for thumbing through the pages to determine whether you wanted to buy it. After further thought, however, I realized that even the Internet has a browsing capability. It's different, but in some ways it's even more effective. You can insert a search word or two and thousands, if not millions, of resources are brought up-instantaneously. You'll probably receive so many choices that you will have to refine your search further to obtain a manageable list of options to pursue.

But there is still something to be said for going into a bookstore and letting your eyes meander along the shelves. Is that just nostalgia? Apparently not. Take the grocery business. A few years ago, futurists were predicting that e-grocers would destroy the supermarket business. In 1989, Peapod, one of the first and most prominent e-grocers, was founded. Recently, Peapod lost its CEO, a round of essential financing, and half of its stock market value. This led to a reexamination of the e-grocer concept.

Originally, theorists thought people would welcome saving time and avoiding traffic jams, bad weather, and all the other things we put up with when shopping. But the futurists didn't bargain on the consumers' enjoyment of the social experience of shopping for the food they eat, the supermarkets' colorful and artistic displays of food, and the absence of wait time from the point of decision to checkout. And supermarkets continue to meet the challenges of a new age. Safeway and A&P, for example, are experimenting with self-scanners and bagging by customers of their own purchases.

This is one case where being first in cyberspace is not as good as being best. The supermarket experience seems to be more accepted than online grocery shopping. Having said that, it is still difficult to beat the advantages of the Internet when moving information.

Kicking the Tires

In making reservations recently to travel to an ABA meeting, I went online to find out how many dividend miles were in my account with the airline and the airline's flight schedule. Because I had several questions prompted by the information gathered, I called the airline and spoke to a real person to complete the reservation process. This enabled me to make the purchase more efficiently and more quickly.

This highlights what more and more experts are saying today: Businesses that have bricks and mortar but use the clicks of the Internet to complement their business will be more likely to succeed than businesses with just bricks or just clicks. The consumer wants to be able to make their shopping experience more efficient, but also wants to be able to "kick the tires" and to return the merchandise when they desire (the return policies of the Internet are still inefficient).

This column is intended to bring you information that will make your use of the Internet more productive, both in your practice and in your personal life. The foregoing examples demonstrate that your mere presence on the Internet in the form of a website is not enough. By itself, a website is only an electronic brochure without personal contact. However, a well-developed and content-rich site is valuable in attracting new business from people who are sophisticated in the use of the new technology. It demonstrates-to those who want to confirm that you are familiar with and use this technology-that you are up-to-date in today's world. And it complements your traditional ways of marketing and communicating with your clients.

E-mail Identity

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about lifetime e-mail addresses that reminded me of something I experienced a few years ago. I moved and was not able to keep the same phone number. When I moved, the telephone company inserted an audiotape recording to inform callers that the number had been disconnected, and that my new telephone number was "xxx-xxxx." This referral number was activated for six months and could be extended for a longer period for a small fee. Think about the last time you changed e-mail service providers. Did you get a referral message? Absolutely not! In fact, anybody who's in business and has an e-mail account is terrified to move for fear of losing all the prospects who have that original address. That's one reason why AOL remains the giant that it is (imagine a marketing strategy that guarantees that your customer has to stay with you!). They were so good at bringing us into the fold that many of us are afraid to change; there will be no referral message.

But I eventually took the plunge. I created the equivalent of a P.O. box e-mail address right from my website: edpoll@lawbiz.com. When I created the new address, I had my webmaster forward any mail sent to the site to my AOL address. By doing this, I was able to educate my clients and others with whom I communicate to use my new address. At the same time, I retained my AOL account so that anyone with that old address would not get lost. After a couple of years of doing this, I was ready to take the next step, and I finally cut the AOL umbilical cord without complications.

But e-mail address portability may be coming. Other e-mail hosts are beginning to take a look at the forwarding issue. When portability catches on, AOL may be in for trouble. Of course, by then they'll probably have come up with another gimmick to keep us connected.

Benefits to Lawyers and Clients

If you regularly make payroll checks, even if only to yourself, consider SurePayroll (www.surepayroll. com). Sure beats ADP or Paychex. The cost is less, and the service uses the Internet to get you either direct deposit or checks you can print from your own system. After you approve the payroll transaction, SurePayroll automatically removes the net payroll and payroll taxes from your bank account. And they make the payroll tax returns for you. This, by itself, could be reason enough to use their service. Add to it ease of use and low cost, and you've got a sure winner.

You've probably heard of Nolo Press, Berkeley, California, which publishes many self-help legal books. Many lawyers joke that they are happy about Nolo's existence because they get the business after clients give up trying to be their own lawyers with Nolo's help.

Enter the Internet. Quicken Family Lawyer (www.mattelinteractive.com) is made by Mattel toys under license with Intuit. For less than $30, this program has more than 100 legal forms available to the user. And then there are WillWriter and BusinessLawyer; for $60, you can have them both in one package. Lawyers need to be prepared for the onslaught of distressed consumers who did it wrong the first time around. I suspect, however, that many people will be adequately served by this do-it-yourself mechanism. Although it is true that many of the people who use these programs can't afford lawyers, and most lawyers wouldn't want their business, it is quite likely that these products are a harbinger of things to come.

The Internet brings so much information to us-and quickly. Lawyers will have to continue their training to stay ahead of the curve and to focus on those areas of the practice where clients have a real need, can't or don't want to do it themselves, and can afford to pay for the services. That will be the challenge of the future. The professional will use the Internet to better serve the client; the client will use the Internet to become better informed about what the issue is and where to find the lawyer who can handle the matter.

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a certified management consultant in Los Angeles who advises lawyers and law firms on how to deliver their services more effectively while increasing their profits at the same time. He is the developer of The Tool Kit for Buying or Selling a Law Practice. To comment on this column, call 800/837-5880 or send e-mail to edpoll@lawbiz.com.

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