Outlook with a Side of CRM

Microsoft recently issued a free upgrade to its Business Contact Manager extension to Outlook, a small-business CRM solution. The upgrade makes Business Contact Manager (BCM) a somewhat more interesting proposition for sales professionals and small business owners, especially those already using other Microsoft components such as Small Business Server or Exchange servers or the soon-to-be-released Office Small Business Accounting.

BCM provides some of the customer relationship management (CRM) functions offered in stand-alone products such as Act from Sage Software and Maximizer from Maximizer Software Inc., but it provides them within the familiar Outlook interface. If you own Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003, you already own BCM.

Basic Benefits
BCM makes it easy to track and manage accounts, contacts and business opportunities by letting you see all the activity associated with them in one place &#151 tasks, phone records, e-mails, appointments, notes, documents. While Outlook refers to these as Activities, BCM calls them History Items. When you open the BCM record for a contact, account or opportunity, you’ll see recent History Items listed in a table within the record.

This is a significant improvement over Outlook, which lets you only manage and associate activities with individual contacts and requires you to do time-consuming searches to find and view associated activities.

BCM is more flexible, letting you manage customer communications in a way that makes sense to you. And having instant access to History Items saves time and ensures your sales people are properly prepared when making or fielding customer calls. BCM can also generate reports that summarize the status of accounts and opportunities.

BCM Update &#151 which you can download or ordered on disc &#151 adds new features, including the ability to share BCM information among multiple users over a network, synchronize with Windows Mobile devices and integrate with Office Small Business Accounting (SBA) &#151 which in turn lets you generate quotes, proposals and invoices from BCM records and track employees’ billable time. Since Small Business Accounting isn’t expected to ship until early fall, we were unable to test how BMC integrates with it.

The product also now works with Windows Small Business Server 2003, Exchange Server 2003 and the hosted version of Exchange Server 2003.

The new features in the update make BCM stronger, at least for some people, but this is still a meat-and-potatoes CRM package &#151 competent but with few grace notes. Since it comes from Microsoft, though, it will almost certainly be widely adopted, and also almost certainly will continue to improve, just as Outlook itself has. Its one real competitive advantage over products like Act and Maximizer is that it works within Outlook.

Is it worth upgrading to Outlook 2003 Professional Edition to get BCM? It helps to understand in more detail how BCM and Outlook work together so you can see how much is involved in implementing this solution and what it delivers.

How It Works
When you install BCM, it adds new features, folders and menus to Outlook and at the same time installs a copy of SQL Server Desktop Engine, a more robust database engine than the one used in Outlook. BCM adds three important new categories of content &#151 Accounts, Business Contacts and Opportunities (sales opportunities, that is). Functions such as e-mail, calendaring, tasks, journal and the basic Outlook user interface remain substantially unchanged.

Business Contact Manager for Outlook 2003
Click here for a larger image.

Outlook Contacts also remain, alongside Business Contacts. Microsoft recommends keeping this category for personal contacts. You can easily move or copy business contacts from your Outlook Contacts folder into the new BCM Business Contacts folder.

The central concept introduced with BCM, and common to all CRM, is linking. You create links in the database between Accounts and Business Contacts &#151 between the customer company and all the contacts you deal with at that company. You create links between Opportunities and Accounts or Business Contacts. And you create links &#151 or the program creates them for you &#151 between History Items and the Accounts, Business Contacts and Opportunities with which they’re associated.

This is what makes it possible to show all customer activity in one place. Once you link a Business Contact to an Account, for example, all the e-mail sent to or received from the contact appears in the History Items list for the Account, as well as in the History Items list for the contact.

Business Contact Manager for Outlook 2003
Click here for a larger image.

You need to do some of this linking manually. To link a Business Contact to an Account, you open the record for the Business Contact and select the appropriate Account from a drop-down list of all accounts. But most of the linking is automated, which is the huge benefit of BCM and CRM in general.

Within an Account, Opportunity or Business Contact record, you can click the New button in the History Items field to create a new Business Note, Mail Message, Task, Appointment or Phone Log. The program automatically links whatever item you create, and it appears in the History Items list &#151 and, as noted, will appear also in the History Items lists of any linked records. You can filter History Items so that only the most relevant appear, sort them into various orders and group them by type.

Implementation Issues
If you already use Outlook, the familiar interface certainly makes learning BCM easier than learning an entirely new stand-alone contact management or CRM program, but there is still a substantial learning curve to get to the point where you’re able to exploit all of its power.

BCM lets you import Account and Business Contact data from several sources, including Microsoft List Builder, comma delimited files from Excel and other programs, Microsoft Access databases, Excel workbook and worksheets, Microsoft Sales Leads (from the MS Sales Leads online service), ACT and QuickBooks.

You can also, as noted, easily import Business Contacts from your Outlook Contacts folder. The one snag is that none of the associated Activities such as e-mails, tasks, journal entries, etc &#151 History Items in BCM lingo &#151 import automatically. You can only import Activities as BCM Business Notes, and only by using a very tedious manual process. So History Items lists in BCM will start from when you implement the program.

While BCM Update appeared to install cleanly on our test system, we ran into a fairly serious glitch almost immediately. When selecting records to link to &#151 selecting Business Contacts from a list within an Account record, for example &#151 the lists appeared empty. The names were in fact there. We could scroll the list or type a few letters of the name and see the highlight bar jump down the list in response. And when we clicked OK, whichever (invisible) name was currently highlighted showed up (visibly) in the record in which we were working.

Business Contact Manager for Outlook 2003
Click here for a larger image.

Microsoft technical support told us they had not encountered this fault before and could not replicate it on their test systems. They assumed it to be a previously undetected and rare conflict with another application or driver on our system. At the time of this writing, the issue remains unresolved.

New Features
Sharing over the network, one of the new features, is an all-or-nothing proposition that entails a serious sacrifice in functionality. First, other users get access to everything in your BCM database if you share it &#151 past and future e-mails, for example, along with the Business Contact, Account and Opportunity data you intended to share. And when you share data, for some reason e-mails no longer link automatically to BCM records and no longer appear in History Items lists.

Being able to synchronize BCM data with your Pocket PC could be useful. The BCM Help files even hint that you can synchronize with other types of mobile devices. But the Help files refer you to the Outlook home page at the Microsoft site for more information on this. Our search at this site turned up only one useful reference to synchronizing with a mobile device &#151 a listing for a $69 Pocket PC program called Pocket On-Schedule Version 6, which does let you synch with BCM.

Bottom Line
If you use Microsoft Small Business Accounting and/or one of the servers with which BCM Update integrates, the new version definitely makes the product more attractive. If not, the new features don’t add whole lot. While network sharing is handy, its usefulness is seriously offset by the way Microsoft has implemented it. That said, even without the update and even given its limitations, BCM is worth considering if you already use Outlook and need more advanced CRM-like contact management functionality.

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 new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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