Get Your ACT Together

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You've probably done this: scribbled a contact's phone number on the back of a business card, then misplaced the card. Maybe it's on its way to Tulsa with Joe Prospect. Anyway, the phone number is gone.

Keeping pace in the business world means keeping close tabs on the names, numbers and even personal information of prospects and partners. Computerized address books and e-mail contact lists can do part of the job, but the truly effective professional needs a contact management solution specifically tailored to maintaining relationships.

A contact manager offers a key difference between applications, such as Lotus Agenda or Outlook, says Michaela Gubbels, vice president of product management of Interact, creator of ACT! contact manager. A contact manager "allows you to stay on top of your schedule and contacts and ties them together to give you focus, as well as drive effective business relationships," she says. "A contact manager is a personal information manager that gives you your schedule and calendar and phone list and interrelates all those things so you can see the world according to your customer."

Out of the box, ACT! gives users the functionality to track and forecast sales opportunities, schedule meetings, track the history of every client interaction, and even remember the personal touches, such as customer birthdays and anniversaries, that help build close relationships. Users can synchronize ACT! with their cellular phone or palm devices for mobile configurations and even send and receive e-mails from the application. And, all documents and conversation notes can be attached to each record to provide a complete, at-a-glance history of calls and interactions. Files such as letters, meeting agendas, proposals or memos can be attached to specific contact records so they are easily accessible. Also, contacts can be arranged into groups or subgroups, and new contacts can be moved or assigned easily.

"With a couple of key strokes, I can see anything and everything about [the customer]," Gubbels says. "I'm really getting a complete picture of our relationship. A second benefit is staying on top of your calendar. That's something offered by many products, but the difference here is that again, [the schedule is] connected to the contact record. When I look at the calendar, I can see all my notes on our past interactions."

ACT! users can also take advantage of the power of the Internet. A portal site, Interact.com can be accessed from within ACT! The site offers the ability to set up online meetings, monitor online news reports and stock earnings and even create Web sites specifically tailored to an individual customer.

ACT! also provides sales tools that can be leveraged across the organization. The sales productivity toolkit allows users to forecast and track sales opportunities throughout the pipeline. Graphs, charts and reports can be easily generated and updated as the prospect moves through the sales process. The latest version of ACT! includes the Dale Carnegie Sales Advantage training program, which offers selling techniques and tips.

The program comes with 70 predefined fields to help track vital information, and custom fields can be added with ease. Built-in templates make it simple to write letters, e-mails and faxes that can then be sent to one or hundreds of users with a mail merge function. The software application comes standard with Palm Pilot Link so users can download contact information into their handheld device when heading on the road and can just as easily synch new information into their desktop. ACT! also includes software that enables users to transfer names and numbers from ACT! into a digital phone.

"One of the reasons ACT! has survived has certainly been because it's so easy to use," Gubbels says. "People just put a CD in and they're up and running."

Of course, Gubbels says, "you're only as good as the information you record." But, she says as soon as users realize the effectiveness of the program, "they do put everything in. It's a habit."

ACT! in Action

Marc Schulman is a self-professed "information junkie," a man for whom it's not unusual to amass 35 pages of notes and clippings and reports on one issue, in one sitting. Over the years, he's tried a lot of different applications to supply his habit. Many have failed.

"You'd use them, and then they'd fall off, and you'd have tons of information in them," says Schulman, president and CEO of Eli's Cheesecake Company in Chicago. Schulman wanted a product that was robust enough to handle his demands, yet flexible enough to change and grow with the speed of technology.

"With the Internet, now you're able to get more information," he says. "You can create more and more data and you really need a tool that's flexible, quick moving and one that you can use yourself that allows for other users in your organization. It has to be something quick, simple and cost effective, something you can take off the shelf and work with."

Schulman found that solution six years ago in ACT! In those years, he estimates he's amassed more than 13,000 records in his personal ACT! database. And, he says, "as big as that database is, it's not unwieldy."

"I use it daily," he says, "and in a lot of different ways." Schulman's ACT! database serves as everything from a repository for the clippings and stock quotes and news articles he culls from his jaunts on the Internet, to a place to track sales leads and information. He synchronizes the information onto his Palm Pilot and his laptop for easy on-the-road access and has found that ACT! can be a handy memory jogger.

"I came back to someone I dealt with in 1995," Schulman says, "and I had all my notes there to refer to. You don't always use the information right away, but a year or two later it's pretty neat when you come back to it."

Not only does he track current and past contacts and partners, he uses ACT! to store information on prospects. "I use ACT! a lot for what I would say is almost applied research. A lot of times I use it to generate information on companies I want to know about so I have the information at a later date," he adds.

ACT! is also helpful across the cheesecake empire in tracking and following sales leads. Schulman estimates that about 20 people use it "as a tool through which the sales staff has shared information and leads." Schulman uses the sales productivity toolkit to forecast and track sales opportunities through the pipeline. The grouping feature is also popular, as it allows leads and major players to be organized in a way that makes future contacts easier to manage.

"When you need to take action, you need to take it now," Schulman says. "When you're dealing with everything from suppliers to legislators, your people need to know everything they can in a short period of time, and you have to have the information customized for the way you want to deal with it."

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