Keeping track of customer contact information and ongoing projects is often a daunting task for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) with limited resources.
But Microsoft Canada execs say SMBs can effectively automate that process using Microsoft Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager (BCM).
The BCM product – previously sold as part of larger and more expensive bundle of Microsoft applications – is now available as a standalone offering for around $209.
And for Canadian small business owners such as Gemma Moore, BCM is just what the doctor ordered.
It serves as a good tool for automating the contact management and project tracking process.
Moore is proprietor of MG Moore Design, a graphic design firm specializing in print and Wed-based projects.
Although Moore’s Kincardine, Ont-based business is beginning to reach out to international clients, up until last year, she relied on a pretty cumbersome client tracking system.
“E-mail messages and folders, spreadsheets and address books were my tools for keeping tabs on my client list,” she recalls.
Searching through her “databases” often ate up precious time that could have been channeled into creating Web sites or brochures for clients.
“Because contact information and project status were kept in separate records it sometimes took hours to locate both – if I hadn’t lost them.”
Moore sought a customer relations management (CRM) product but found most applications in the market were either too expensive or complicated and unsuitable for her business.
The exception, she said, was BCM, whose interface was very similar to Outlook and easy to navigate.
Ease of access to vital information was one of the first and most fundamental benefits of using BCM, she said.
For instance, with BCM, Moore can now access customer addresses and with the touch of a key.
The automated list spits out contact information in seconds as opposed to the hours Moore previously spent searching through records.
Additionally, the BCM enabled Moore to keep her client contact information and project records in a single application and to connectthe two sets of data.
The application also links the names of multiple contacts from the same company.
Moore says when she views a client’s name on her computer screen, she can also immediately bring up a folder showing the status of a project for that client.
Data on other persons associated with the contact or the project can also be easily accessed through the system.
“No more jumbling through separate files our sources, and I can update each file on the fly,” she said.
Moore also plans to use BCM to boost her marketing campaign.
She says Outlook 2007 with BCM will enable her to send ads and marketing material via e-mail.
The application’s tracking features will enable her firm to gather responses from potential clients.
The product will also produce a report that can tell her which campaign is doing well.
For many small business owners, conveniences such as those described by Moore are critical, noted Elizabeth Caley a senior product manager at Microsoft Canada.
“Very often these businesses are one-person operations. Owners need to concentrate on providing service or producing products for their clients.”
Caley said BCM received a very enthusiastic response from SMB operators, when the tool was first offered as a bundled product.
Microsoft’s Web site received more than two million hits from people inquiring about the contact management application, she said.
Stand alone CRM tools are ideal for most small operations, according to an industry analyst.
“These types of tools offer the best combination of features, ease of use, and low price for businesses run by a single person or a small staff,” said Timothy Hickernell, associate research analyst for Info-tech Research Group, a technology consulting firm based in London, Ont.
There are many applications available that can take SMBs beyond Excel, he said.
Products such as Microsoft’s BCM, ACT! from Sage Software and GoldMINE from FrontRage Solutions Inc. continue to be popular with lawyers, insurance and real estate agents, consultants and other individuals running businesses on their own, or with a very small staff, Hickernell said.
He said these products are priced competitively, below $500, and share very similar features.
The market campaign features these products offer are basic.
For instance, the campaign tracking of BCM relies on the built-in e-mail survey and reporting function of Outlook, Hickernell said.
One huge advantage of BCM is it has a recognizable interface that should put any Outlook user at ease. Another plus is the application’s interoperability with other Microsoft products.
More advance functionalities demanded by some medium-sized businesses are available from for CRM tools that are being offered as hosted online services.
But these Web-based software tools are relatively more expensive.
Basic packages can start at $25, per user, per month.
Services that include such features as market segmentations, campaign tracking and analysis can cost as much as $70 to $100 a month per user.
The packages are usually offered as part of multi-year contract.