ACT Gets a New Outlook

Act, the pioneering contact and customer management application from Sage Software Inc., has come a long way in the 20 years since the product first appeared. And the newly released Act 2007 (Version 9.0), continues the evolution with potentially important new Outlook integration features, productivity enhancements and beefed-up security.

The product targets mainly individuals and small businesses with up to about 10 networked people. Sage claims the company has 35,000 corporate customers that are using Act and 2.5 million individual registered users. This makes it the best-selling product in its category, according to Sage.

Act provides a central repository for contact and customer information, accessible by all authorized individuals. It lets you manage personal and team calendars and activities, capture notes on communications with customers and track and forecast sales opportunities. You can schedule and prioritize tasks, set alarms, and view opportunities, activities and tasks all at once or filtered by various criteria.

The product also integrates with Microsoft Outlook and with popular business tools such as Microsoft Office Word, Lotus Notes, accounting programs such as Sage’s Peachtree and Intuit‘s QuickBooks and handheld devices such as Palm.

The new version comes in a few different flavors, starting with the base product ($230 new, $150 upgrade.) Act Premium for Workgroups includes all the core features and also provides centralized administration, workgroup collaboration features and better opportunity tracking and security. It comes in two editions, EX and ST. Premium EX ($400 new, $260 upgrade) ships with Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Express Edition, which supports up to 30 people. Premium ST ($480 new, $340 upgrade) comes with Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Standard Edition, which can support more than 30 people.

Act Premium for Web ($400 new, $260 upgrade) allows access over the Internet, but is not, as the name might imply, a software as service offering. It’s a server-based solution that stores data securely behind the company firewall rather than on individual computers. It provides the same functionality as the other Premium products. There is also a specialized version for real estate professionals, Act Premium for Real Estate 2006 ($470 new, $100 to $300 upgrades) and a version that runs on Palm OS handhelds ($100).

The new Outlook integration features are a testament to the continuing domination of the Microsoft product in the small business market. It must be galling for Act to have to provide this integration given that Outlook on its own and Outlook with Business Contact Manager both compete with Act on some level. But customers have evidently demanded more integration.

Outlook Integration
Version 9.0 delivers it. Now Act customers can specify Outlook as their default e-mail client — as long as they’re using Outlook 2000, 2002 or 2003. When you initiate a mail action within Act, including starting the mail merge process, Act will launch the Outlook new-message form instead of the Act message form. If you’re sending a message to a group or company, members’ addresses are automatically added to the To: line in the new message from the Act contact list.

One advantage Act has over Outlook is that it automatically attaches e-mails to contact records and instantly displays them in a history log when you open that record. (With Outlook, you can display e-mails sent or manually attached to a contact but only after a very slow search of the database.) Using Outlook instead of Act for e-mail would be useful only if Act could still attach messages to contacts in the same way, and it can — with a couple of constraints.

Act 2007 screen shot
Outlook integration lets you attach an e-mail to a contact within Act.
(Click for larger image)

First, you have to create an Act phone book inside Outlook, a simple enough procedure. Second and more limiting, you can no longer use Word as your default e-mail editor, which many Outlook customers do. Act apparently cannot capture e-mail addresses from the Word e-mail form so it can’t add these messages to contact records. In fact, if you try to continue using Word to compose Outlook messages, Act not only won’t add messages to a record, it generates an error message that freezes both applications until dismissed.

You can create a new Act contact from an Outlook e-mail by opening the message and clicking the Create Act Contact icon that Act places on the Outlook toolbar when it installs. This opens the standard Act New Contact dialog and automatically fills in the contact’s name and e-mail address. You can then fill in the other fields to create a complete record.

Act 2007 also lets you add a message received in Outlook to an Act contact by clicking the Attach to Act Contacts icon which appears on the toolbars in both the main Outlook mail display and any open message. It launches the Act Attach E-mail to Contact(s) dialog in which you can search for the names of contacts and add them to an Attach These Contacts list.

The other crucial integration feature — automated synchronization of Outlook and Act calendars — is only available in the Premium Windows version. In the standard version, you have to make a selection from a sub-menu to initiate the synchronization process, and there are flaws in the way it works. When updating the Act calendar from Outlook, some events unaccountably came over with the title ““ rather than the title given in Outlook. And in my tests some events did not come over at all. With the Premium versions of the program, you can schedule events, including synchronization of Outlook and Act activities, either at specified times and dates or every month, week, day or hour.

With a reliable and automated calendar synchronization feature, it would certainly be more feasible for companies to switch to Act from Outlook. It means they could continue using at least some of the familiar Outlook interface to reduce the learning curve for people or give them a choice of interfaces, while still being able to maintain a central Act repository and take advantage of advanced Act features in other modules.

Enhanced Productivity
The other upgrades are relatively minor tweaks to existing features. For example, on the Notes tab in a contact record, the form can now be configured so you see both the list of notes and a preview of the full contents of the highlighted note in a sub-window. And there is a new field in the main contact display for Last E-mail, similar to the Last Meeting field, which saves you the trouble of clicking the History tab to view e-mails.

Act 2007 screen shot
Act 2007 features tighter security including the capability to enforce strict password policies.
(Click for larger image)

It was always possible to link a company record to records of individual contacts employed by the company. Now you can specify which fields to link so that when you make a change on the Company record, Act prompts you to change it in all contacts linked to that company. Version 9.0 also makes it easier to update company record fields if you change a field in a linked contact. The company field in linked contact records is a clickable link that takes you to the company record.

A new keyword search function lets you look in contact, company and group records for words in any field. If you can’t remember a contact’s name, for example, but do remember something about a phone conversation for which you made a note, you can search on a word in that note. What makes this impressive is that the search list shows you which field your keyword appears in, and if you click on an item in the list, it will open the note, history, activity, or opportunity with the keyword highlighted.

When you use the Lookup or query function — searching on a particular field value — the program now reminds you with a label at the bottom of the screen which field you searched. And the new version makes it easier to edit a query in the Advanced Lookup function.

Tighter Security
This year’s edition includes several new or enhanced security features. You can now set rules for access passwords such as forcing people to change passwords every so many days and not allowing them to recycle recently used passwords. You can more easily make notes, history, activity and opportunity records private right from a Contact record. And in the Premium versions, administrators can restrict access to specific fields, specifying which people or teams can or cannot access the fields.

The new Premium versions also let administrators schedule database administration tasks such as Check & Repair and Backup.

Bottom Line
Is there enough here to warrant upgrading from the previous version of Act? For bigger companies concerned about security around their Act databases, the new features may well make it worth the expense. The productivity enhancements are not enough on their own. The Outlook integration features are probably more important to individuals and companies considering moving from Outlook to Act for the first time, and the new integration features will make it an easier transition.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here’s How, a spiffy Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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