"I have a guy on the east coast of Russia, in Vladivostok, that I can never get ahold of," says Sean Shannon Engle, director of Asian, African, and European sales for Broadcast Supply Worldwide (BSW), in Tacoma, Wash. "But he does have access to the Internet."

Like the fax before it, the Internet is becoming an indispensable tool for reaching unreachable customers. Posting an electronic-mail message via the Internet is far cheaper than the $7 it costs to fax a single page to Vladivostok. And the $17-million distributor of radio-station audio equipment has found network connections more reliable than certain phone lines. Says Engle, "I have customers in the Ukraine, where I can't count on the telephone or fax."

A small but growing number of prospects in cities with unfamiliar names are contacting BSW through E-mail exchanges. Engle says Internet E-mail has shaved not only his fax bill but his travel bill as well. Even better, he learns more about potential customers than he could by phone or fax.

Repeated E-mail contact may lead to a small test order worth $5,000 to $10,000, but not before the engineer or station owner -- or distributor, as the case may be -- consults with friends. Many turn to on-line forums for advice.

Broadcaster's Bulletin Board, a professional forum on CompuServe, is a popular gathering place. "It's the 1990s version of a Rotary Club," says BSW's marketing vice-president, Tim Schwieger. Like gossip or graffiti, forum chatter isn't always flattering or true. "We've seen manufacturers being slimed," says Schwieger, who adds that on-line, bad news travels faster than fast. But one day he was amazed to find that one of his postings had prompted mail from radio stations in New Zealand, Germany, and Australia. Though he'd refrained from plugging his company -- as forum etiquette dictates -- the stations wanted ordering information.

Engle has used E-mail to draft deals, and new customers have used it to forward bank information to him, but, he cautions, it can take months if not years of E-mail before the topic turns to currency conversion. "There's still the human need to know someone," he says, before a sale can be closed.