Your own on-line system can give your customers direct access to product literature, sales reps, even the World Wide Web

You head up an insurance agency. In theory you're in the business of selling policies. In reality you're racking up printing and shipping costs to send out information.

One way to cut down on mounds of paper and big FedEx bills is to create a Web site. But what if your customers aren't Web users? An alternative is to set up a private on-line system that can give your customers access to price lists, product literature, sales representatives, even the World Wide Web. All they need is a computer, a modem, and your system number.

In its simplest form a private on-line system functions like a dial-in bulletin board: you post information, and callers retrieve it. They can also send and receive E-mail through your system. Want more? With the right software, you can be a gateway to the Internet--linking callers to your Web site and from there to the rest of the Net. You can run on-line conferences and forums, create file areas for specific users, and collect marketing and other information using questionnaires.

Hinrichs Financial Group, in Charlotte, N.C., is a general insurance agency that sells MassMutual products. (The company had $80 million in premiums this year.) It established its own on-line system late last year using Worldgroup, a program from Galacticomm, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (800-328-1128; prices range from $199 for 2-user access to $10,000 for a package that gives 256 users simultaneous access). Right now Hinrichs is using its system as a pipeline to its own agents, who download the documents, spreadsheet files, and graphics they need to build custom proposals. Product information, as well as the firm's weekly newsletter, will be available on the system. And down the road the company hopes to sell access to some of that information to MassMutual agents throughout the country. A built-in security system would limit the files those agents could open.

Hinrichs is using just a small part of what's available in a personal on-line system today. Vitro Corp., a systems-engineering provider with headquarters in Rockville, Md., is using the full communication package.Vitro has been working under government contract to set up a "virtual server" to the navy. Running on Wildcat! Interactive Net Server, which includes a Net-connection package from Mustang Software (Bakersfield, Calif.), Vitro's on-line system gives U.S. sailors all over the world access to E-mail and teleconferencing. It's also their entrÉe to the Net. Vitro gives its callers full access to the offerings on the Web, but the system can be configured to limit access to a particular site. Mustang (800-999-9619) markets four versions of Wildcat! Interactive Net Server, at prices from $249 (for 2-user access) to $3,995 (for 64-user access).

What are the advantages of having your own on-line system? Why not simply set up a Web site and let users come to you through their Internet service provider (ISP)? First, a lot of your customers may not have an ISP. Some people are intimidated by the Net; some don't want to pay the monthly fees; still others don't have the time to surf. When you operate an on-line system, your users don't have to be on the Net to get the information you want them to have; your system is their connection.

Moreover, your own on-line system gives you an opportunity to earn points for your customer service. On the Web you're just another face in the crowd. But when you run your own on-line system, you have visibility: your on-line system is the primary destination for your customers. And if you make that system a real source of service--a place where your customers can get information and help, and let you know what they need--you'll be strengthening the relationship between you.

Then there's the third advantage: a chance to make money. One software manufacturer says that as many as 60% of the companies that offer personal on-line service now charge for that service. For many companies, what started out as a marketing function has become a profit center.

Who knows? Maybe you'll be the next America Online.

Jim Cope lives in South Bend, Ind., and writes about technology.