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Independent view

A funny thing has happened in the world of internet sales, they haven&#39t taken off – not to any extent anyway.

Two years ago, we all trembled at the sight of amazon.com and lastminute.com and thought “here they come”. We were told that the new economy would sweep all before it, and that we must move to cyber-space or die.

And don&#39t worry, they told us, you are too late anyway. New companies are there before you and already have your customers in the palms of their mouse.

Today, the view is very different. You might be tempted to sneer fleetingly at the dotcom collapses and the share price implosion and carry on with real business. But to do so may be to miss out on a good thing.

This is not another of the articles telling you that you must get onto the world wide web – quite the opposite. Many of us who invested in high-tech, dynamic-graphic, interactive sites have wondered what the money was spent for. Great for impressing the relatives in America – you must visit Philip&#39s site at www.retirement-advice.co.uk – but not much use for doing business.

What is worth knowing is what the cyberspace companies want next – and the answer is IFAs. Do not believe that the failure of dotcom sales has been the inability to reach investors, it has not. The hit rate has been impressive and a good proportion of the sophisticated investing public use the web to find information. But that is as far as most go.

The step that has been a bridge too far in electronic connection is the actual sale. As we in the IFA profession know all too well, without that you may as well not have bothered.

So, where the internet community is going next is “click and call” – the internet linked to telephone help and advice lines. The web can reach thousands of people, without time or geographical limitations, but it cannot reassure or encourage them – only humans can do this. Or in the case of full and proper advice, to be specific, only the IFA can do this.

So a new era in online sales is beginning – the website linked to an adviser – and the opportunities are exciting for IFA firms of all sizes.

Nearly all IFA firms work with affinity groups of one kind or another, be it FTSE 100 companies or the local sports club.

The biggest challenge is to communicate constantly with these organisations and to keep our business in the client&#39s eye. To this end, we visit regularly, produce expensive newsletters and spend hours in the car driving to and from presentations.

Nearly all companies are now embracing electronic communication – e-mail rules. I spend most of the day sending and receiving emails, and then go home at night to watch my teenage daughters ceaselessly text-messaging their friends.

This means that most of your employed clients are able and willing to use the web or e-mail to contact you. Why don&#39t they go to a personal finance website instead? Because they still want one-to-one advice from someone they trust.

Their view on meetings is also changing. If you can no longer spare the time to see them, the chances are that they would prefer a to use quicker route too. In these days of fast everything a 90-minute meeting is becoming an anachronism.

So the moral of all this, I believe, is that we should stop viewing cyber business as the new sales process. Online business is nowhere near as attractive in personal finance as it is in rate-driven markets. IFAs offer advice and reassurance – where human contact is essential.

What the internet is, for IFAs, is a vastly superior telephone system. A system that allows you to talk with hundreds of clients each day via e-mail. Where you can offer a beautiful range of brochures and examples with no printing costs. And support clients, regardless of their location, without having to spend one minute in your car.

To make the internet work you must combine it with the telephone and speak to your clients. Do not just exchange impersonal e-mails and do not imagine that having a 60-page site will result in electronic business. We are in the business of personal contact and individual service – long may this be the case!

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