Microsoft’s Small Business Appeal Evolves

It’s really aggravating. Your sales leads are in an ACT! or GoldMine database. Your sales materials are in a Word document. Your hot prospects from a trade show are in an Excel spread sheet. Your sales orders are on Post-It Notes all over your monitor. You try not to let it get you down but say to yourself; “There’s got to be a better way.”

There is a better to effectively manage your small business sales organization. But which solution will cure your small business sales malaise?

It depends on whether you need a stand alone business contact management tool or a customer relationship management system. Either way, Microsoft has your small business covered.

As part of its Office 2003 System, Microsoft is bundling a business contact management tool with Outlook 2003. The public release of Microsoft’s entire Office 2003 software lineup is slated for mid-year, but those small businesses eager to give the program a spin can sign up for a beta kit right now.

Microsoft’s business contact management solution should not be confused with its small business customer relationship management solution that was released earlier this year. Microsoft’s CRM system offers rich functionality, such as account and contact management, order management, account hierarchies, lead management, competitive tracking, and workflow support. Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager, on the other hand, is an individual contact management tool.

Paul Prokop, Microsoft product manager for Outlook with Business Contact Manager, explained the difference this way: “Microsoft CRM is a client-server application that works in a multi-user environment. It requires an IT staff to set it up, as well as some additional Microsoft technology, such as an Exchange Server,” he said. “Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager is a single user desktop application that extends the features of Outlook 2003. It’s ready for small business users out of the box.”

Another simple dividing line between the two solutions is the size of your business — if your small business consists of 25 to 500 employees and needs to allow file sharing between sales people, management and the like, then Microsoft CRM is ripe for the taking. But if your small business sales force consists of fewer then 25 people and you only need a way to manage customer contacts, accounts and sales leads from a desktop PC, then Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager fits the bill.

Of course, both customer and contact management solutions integrate with Microsoft Office applications. But Microsoft CRM takes its integration capabilities deep into business resource management systems and third party applications through SOAP/XML programming. Consequently, Microsoft CRM can be configured to meet very specific small business needs — its customizable data schema is capable of producing specialized forms for unique business processes.

For those small businesses that don’t need a fully featured CRM solution, Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager is a great place to centralize sales communications, tracking and reporting all within a single application.

Since the Business Contact Manager is as add-on to Outlook 2003, small businesses will find that the program is easy to use, as long as you’re already familiar with the popular e-mail application.

Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager adds four new features to the familiar face of Outlook in its updated rendition for 2003. The four features designed to make managing customer and contact information easier include:

  1. Accounts: This function makes it simple to create a contact hierarchy that links companies with the individual contacts who work there.
  2. Business Opportunities: This function enables users to track their business contacts through the sales cycle.
  3. Activity History: This function automatically consolidates all associated documents related to the account, contract or sales opportunity in one place for easy retrieval.
  4. Reports: This function enables users to filter and prioritize information, which makes all the data that’s collected relevant and actionable.

Prokop said that Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager is a way for small businesses to implement a new sales productivity tool without reinventing the wheel.

“Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager supports data imports from ACT! as well as Word and Excel programs,” Prokop said. “The program’s ease of use allows small businesses to strike a balance between old and new business contact management systems straight out of the box.”

But Prokop is careful not to over promise what Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager can deliver to small businesses. There are few things worse than investing in a new computing tool only to find out that it falls short of what your business really needs.

Microsoft understands that a small business faces unique challenges of getting more done with fewer resources — be it time, personnel or money. Now — or at least in a few months — small businesses can choose which path their business management systems need to take.

Microsoft has not yet determined pricing for Office 2003 program. The company also hasn’t determined which editions of the software will include Business Contact Manager in the mix. The contact management add-on to Outlook 2003 could be bundled with Microsoft’s Small Business, Professional or Standard editions of Office 2003.

In the meantime, you can start collecting those Post-It Notes and spreadsheets to prepare a sales forecast for the next quarter knowing there will be better way to effectively manage your small business sales organization soon enough. Or enter into Microsoft’s beta program today to get a preview of what your sales organization could be tomorrow.

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