Go Ask Ernie

Small businesses are tapping world-class consultants from their PCs. In May, Ernst & Young launched Ernie, an online service that answers E-queries from clients within two days. Now, outfits from resume shops to big law firms are planning ways to deliver their services over the Internet. "It's the new paradigm for consulting," says Susan Tan, an analyst at International Data Corp. But there are pitfalls. Half of Ernie's target customers--companies with $25 million to $200 million in revenue--are unwired. And even some of those who are balk at the price: $6,000 a year. "Every month we get the bill, we ask ourselves if it's worth it," says Chris Strom of the New York office of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, an architecture firm that uses Ernie to research its clients' industries. Lyle DeWitt of Trinet Employer Group in San Leandro, Calif., counters: "I don't know how Ernie makes money." On average, he alone asks two questions a day.