Mail-order company Gateway 2000 uses one to collect customer feedback and deliver technical support. Micro Code Technologies uses one to disseminate closing stock-market prices to thousands of clients. Indeed, many a corporation now employs an automatic modem-to-modem bulletin-board system (BBS) to handle vendor-customer matters. And although few small entities realize it, for only a slight cost any company can not only tender solutions to problems but also deliver sales pitches and take orders, 24 hours a day, all without human intercedence.

ImageAbility, a $2-million-a-year color-imaging lab in Chelmsford, Mass., funneled a scant $1,300 into an ancient IBM and some BBS software, priming the system with "an information center" describing the company to potential customers who'd heard about its services elsewhere. "We were too busy running the business," founder Stephen Young explains, "so we let the system do the marketing." After the investment returned some $800,000 in sales, Young upgraded to a fast computer and state-of-the-art software -- for just $5,000 more.

Among ImageAbility's offerings is a selection of clip art that its clients can view and, for a fee chargeable on a credit card, download into their own computers. The software Young selected to handle the high-resolution graphics is called the Major BBS, a DOS-based program that comes with five preprogrammed call-in options. In one mode a caller gets full access; a second supports customer service; a third signs up new callers for later contact; a fourth allows the BBS to specify who can log on; and in the fifth, callers pay for the service.

The Major BBS software starts at $259 and requires a 286 or higher PC with 2 megabytes of memory. Special add-ons ($249 each) allow for multiple users; all told, a single PC can be outfitted to handle up to 256 simultaneous callers. A network option is available. For more information, call Galacticomm at 305-583-5990. Better still, modem the company's own BBS at 305-583-7808.