Can Your Rolodex Do This?

`Contact manager' programs keep tabs on every call and fax-and more

Computers are great at storing, arranging, and retrieving information. Managers and professionals, whether they write technology columns or run multinational enterprises, need to track reams of data about the people they deal with in business. The marriage between man and machine seems made in heaven.

Although I know some folks who still prefer their Rolodexes, most people seem to be replacing them with computer programs. Some get by with typing names and numbers into a text file and searching in their word processor to retrieve data. More efficient are programs that emulate a Rolodex, such as TakeNote, shareware that's available from many Web sites including Personal-information managers, such as Starfish Software's Sidekick for Windows and Microsoft Corp.'s Schedule+, can handle your address book, to-do lists, and calendar.

BIG LISTS. If you're one of those people who really likes to get into the data and maintain detailed records about activities, then a contact manager is the tool for you. These specialized databases really shine at such things as keeping track of dealings with a sizable list of customers. The growing popularity of such programs is easy to explain, says Bill Coleman, general manager for industry leader ACT! from Symantec Corp.: "Once you have a customer, maintaining the relationship is a lot cheaper than finding a new customer."

ACT! and its competitors can maintain a history of every telephone call and fax that you send to anyone in your address book--and can generate reports on how you spend your time. The software can remind you when it's time to make a follow-up call. Networking abilities allow sales forces or other teams to share a common contact database, and mobile links can keep workers in the field updated. I use the contact-management software to keep track of test equipment coming in and out of the office. It can track when equipment is expected to arrive and leave, link hardware and software with the company representatives who oversee the loan programs, and remind me of upcoming product announcements.

As the best-established contact manager, ACT! offers support for a variety of operating systems and handheld devices (table). ACT! users also can tap a network of user groups and authorized training facilities, as well as buy newsletters and books devoted to the program. Third-party add-on features extend the program's capabilities, such as a software-hardware combination that uses Caller ID information from an incoming call to make the caller's ACT! record pop up on your screen.

GoldMine is a little like ACT! on steroids. In addition to the software's built-in capability to generate a wide variety of reports on dealings with contacts, GoldMine's big plus is its ability to automate a variety of business tasks. With the right script in place, for example, a call to a sales prospect could generate a follow-up letter, then a fax or E-mail message at planned intervals. You also can build in schedules that will remind you to make regular calls to contacts.

Up-to-Date, the new Windows version of the leading contact manager for the Macintosh, isn't as feature-rich as ACT! or GoldMine. But the product, from Now Software, offers the unique ability to exchange information over the Internet or internal corporate networks that use World Wide Web technology. Up-to-Date Web Publisher will let you swap selected calendars and contact lists over the Web with colleagues or even customers. (A test version is available at Now's Web site.) You can drag an item off of a colleague's Web calendar and drop it into your private datebook.

E-CARDS. Up-to-Date is also one of the first programs that supports the exchange of electronic business cards, using a standard promoted by an industry consortium called Versit. If you, for example, attach a contact record to an E-mail message, anyone using any Versit-compliant program can add that card to an address book.

Becoming proficient with these programs takes time. Just figuring out how you want to associate your contacts in groups can take hours. Trial use is a good idea, since once you've set up a contact manager, it's hard to change. You can download trial versions of GoldMine and Up-to-Date from the Web. If your work life could benefit from a dose of organization, learning one of these programs may well be worth the effort.

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