All Right Already, Toss The Rolodex

"Contact managers" are better, friendlier, and cheaper

It's not just who you know that counts, it's how well you keep track of them. Ask Mary Price, president of six-year-old Integritas Inc. in Corte Madera, Calif. She, more than most, should know that a good database is golden. After all, her company sells hospitals and corporations specialized software for managing medical records.

Price didn't opt for an expensive database product like her own, however, when she wanted to organize the overwhelming number of E-mail, phone, and face-to-face contacts she and her four salespeople make every day. Instead, she went for a low-cost, off-the-shelf solution--a piece of software called a contact manager.

Price easily installed one of the leading contact managers, Act! from Symantec Corp. of Cupertino, Calif., on her office PCs. Total cost for five copies: $1,000. Now, Integritas' sales staff travel with a copy of Price's master database on their portables. Each time they communicate with a current or prospective client, they type in the new information and periodically send back E-mail to the home office to update the files. The records contain a complete history of dealings with a particular client, while a built-in calendar gives reminders for follow-ups. With a few keystrokes, Price says, "everybody in the company can read everybody's latest notes."

While shoe boxes full of index cards, scribbled notes, or old-fashioned paper Rolodexes may still cut it for some businesses, chances are you're ready for something more--particularly if teamwork is important to your operation. Software programs that remind you of appointments and keep up-to-date contact lists aren't exactly new; they've been around in various forms for more than a decade. But the good news is they have grown increasingly sophisticated, user-friendly, and affordable--$200 or less per machine. Among the latest bells and whistles is the ability to track the sales process from start to finish and use this data to forecast sales.

For small businesses, these programs can help create an enhanced aura of efficiency and professionalism in dealings with clients and customers. When Bruce Bushert purchased a floundering carpet cleaning business in Decatur, Ill., 11 years ago for $12,000, he inherited a box full of 50 index cards, listing mostly disgruntled customers. He renamed the company USA CLEAN, set about improving customer service, and in 1991, chucked the index cards for a contact manager from GoldMine Software Corp. of Pacific Palisades, Calif. Now employing 30 people, he expects to gross at least $750,000 this year--up from just $40,000 his first year. The GoldMine software, since upgraded to the latest version, has enabled Bushert and his sales team to keep meticulous, up-to-date records on more than 9,000 customers and sales leads, Bushert says. Typing in contact updates is just part of his staff's routine. The database, he says, "builds itself as you take care of business."

If you're convinced such software could help you, there are basically two ways to go: choose a full-blown contact-management program that can be customized to organize information to your specifications, such as those offered by Symantec or GoldMine, or use one of the various Personal Information Manager (PIM) programs. PIMs, such as Lotus Organizer and Day-Timer Organizer, started out as computerized personal appointment and address books for home use but have been adapted for business to such an extent that the lines have blurred. Industry-trackers frequently lump them together and they're often sold side by side on retail shelves for under $100 per computer.

As the two classes merge, contact managers have mimicked more of the user-friendliness and clear graphic designs of the PIM programs, while the PIMs have aped the contact managers with new features such as the ability to share data across a network. "I think [contact management systems and PIMs] are competitive products, though they may not necessarily appeal to the same user," says Dave Tremblay, a senior industry analyst who follows retail software sales at Computer Intelligence, the La Jolla (Calif.) market data firm. "They generally have the same functionality: managing contacts and schedules."

Indeed, all of the products have improved, particularly in their ability to transfer information automatically into other business software programs. Many of the leading contact managers, for example, allow you to E-mail a contact without exiting the program. Just double-click on a field that contains a contact's E-mail address and the program will automatically launch an E-mail window with the sender's and receiver's address fields filled in.

SCREEN HOG. Such features make the contact management program even more central to users' PC desktops. "It's our core application--it's what sits on our screens 90% of the time," says Nashville literary agent Michael Hyatt of his GoldMine contact manager. Hyatt, a partner in Wolgemuth & Hyatt, manages to work without a secretary and says the software enables his seven-person firm to manage probably twice as many authors as it could handle otherwise.

How do you choose? If you're already accustomed to using a paper daybook or a PIM program at home, the PIM likely will be more comfortable and familiar. But also consider your growth projections. Contact managers such as GoldMine and Act! currently have some technical advantages over PIMs when it comes to handling large databases. But they are a little harder to learn and might require a consultant's help. Contact managers are generally speedier; unlike the PIM, they can also track sales and make forecasts.

PIM vendors say there's theoretically no limit to the database size they can handle, and they promise improvements that will make them even more competitive with the contact managers. Both classes of software have become more useful for small businesses and company work groups by offering a "synchronization" capability to automatically update the database--even across the Internet.

Consider, too, the useful built-in links to other systems you may use, including handheld computers such as the fast-selling PalmPilot from U.S. Robotics Corp. and the REX PC Companion from Rolodex Electronics. Both PIMs and contact managers are starting to offer a new link to scanning devices--such as Corex Technologies Corp.'s $300 CardScan Plus 300 or Seiko Corp.'s $200 Smart Business Card Reader--which "read" data from business cards.

For now, the main drawback to these software programs is the drudge work involved in keeping your database current. But take heart. Analysts predict speech recognition technology will be incorporated into these programs in perhaps a year or two. Then you'll be able to name-drop right into your own PC, and impress everyone with your swelling list of contacts.

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