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Get into the Act!

According to Microsoft, Outlook is a “personal information manager and communications program”. But those who need a more robust solution than a glorified address book have many viable alternatives. To be sure, Outlook is an excellent email program, but do not mistake it to be a contact manager or project manager. Even with Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager update what you have is a hodgepodge of puzzle pieces added on top of a weak address book that is bound to collapse under the weight of professional use.

So what should a professional salesperson, attorney or project manager depend on to get ahead in their careers? There are many tools out there, but the one I found to be the best is Act! What makes Act so good? In a few words, it’s really easy to use, it’s highly customizable, and it gets the job done. Basically, it contains an email program, contact list, calendar, a pda link, a task list and a method to group contacts. But hey, you’re thinking, Outlook does all that as well. Yes, it does do it all, but not as well. Let’s take a closer look at some basic functions and you’ll see what I mean.

Search

This is of major importance. When your phone rings you want to find your customer in your database quickly. You want access to your notes fast, so you can remember all the items you’ve discussed. Act makes this very easy and seamless. Outlook makes it a bit more challenging.

Take a look at the first photo. This is the contact list in Act. I like to have my whole list of contacts displayed. By default, I search through the Company column. You can add or remove columns, such as my Acct_num column. To find a contact you just start typing. If you want to find a contact by any other column heading, you just click on that column heading. It then sorts by that column. When you start typing it will find the first instance of what you’re typing. So if, for example, I sort by the first column, Acct_Num, and type 3956, then I’ll get that account. When you type the 3, it goes to all the 3’s, then the 9, it narrows your list to all the 39’s, and so forth until you finish. Very simple.

Let’s see how we would do that in Outlook. You can sort by company or category and a few other ways. But if you search for something, you have to type the search string exactly the way it appears or Outlook won’t find it. The alternative is to use Advanced Find. But that means you are pressing more buttons than you would in Act. You open Advanced Find from the toolbar, by going to Tools > Find > Advanced Find. Then instruct Outlook to find a word or words in a variety of fields, and then you hope you get lucky. If Outlook finds one or more matches, you must weed through them and pick one you think is right. As a user you feel like you are using DOS commands to unlock a door. Whereas with Act, you can see your results as you type. Act finds things faster and easier.

Notes

Outlook notes are just in a pane and are really just a freeform place. The notes area is unstructured compared to Act’s notes area. If you type notes, you have to remember to type in the date yourself. Look at Act notes and you’ll see what I mean. Act gives you the choice of including attachments like Word docs you send to your customers, histories, emails and the notes themselves. Act automatically fills in the date. Each note is a standalone object. If you sync to a pda, palm or smartphone, you can decide how many notes will sync.

Groups

Act allows for grouping, which is similar to categories in Outlook. I always found it works great on the desktop for both Outlook and Act, but not so well on the pda.

Letters

Simple things like writing letters to contacts are what really separate Act from Outlook. Outlook is a great email application, but it just cannot easily do anything else. Act comes with many pre-made form letters, and It’s easy to add your own letters. I made my own general letter with my company logo. When I press the Letter icon in Act, Word opens up complete with my company logo and the contact’s info already filled out. I set that up in Outlook, but it takes many steps to accomplish the same thing. Act purposely saves the letters in a file and makes these letters available in the contact’s history, whereas Outlook requires that you save the letter then you must go to the Action menu, hit Link, then File, then find the file to link it. It’s anything but intuitive.

(Outlook links pictured above)

Customization

Outlook: none, Act lots. Look at my contact screen in Act. I totally customized it. I added an Acct_num field for Account Number, I added a couple fields for last year’s sales and sales two years ago, then I decided to use the Last Results field to consolidate all that info. I write a code that makes sense to me and I match that code with one of the fields in my pda.

A Click Away

In Act every function is a click away. Everything is intuitive and simple. Act even comes with Act Link to sync with your pda. There are more sophisticated programs to sync Act with your pda as well. Outlook is free and Act is not, so why pay for it? Well, most people probably won’t. But if you’re a professional, if you make a living contacting people, quoting and following up, if you sell to, or manage people, if you are busy and need a dependable solution, you’ll find that Outlook will fall short. I tried both. When you are in front of a customer and need answers quickly, Outlook will disappoint you. Its search feature will trip you up. Its link feature fails. Letters and quotes that you have attached to a contact disappear with no warning. Acts simplicity and customizability trump Outlook’s every move. Act will make you look like a professional.

In Sum

There are newer versions of Act!  Act!’s website, http://www.act.com/  shows Act! 2007 is the latest version.  Whichever version you choose, you’ll find that Act! is robust and intuitive.  By comparison, Outlook is built on a house of cards.  Microsoft has gone to battle against Act!, Goldmine and other professional sales programs not by their typical route of buying out the top selling software, but by taking a good email program and trying to make it into a professional “information manager.”  Call it what you will, when you go to battle in the business world, you must be armed with the best and latest information.  It is therefore surprising that Microsoft offers such an awkwardly designed program to compete with a thoroughbred such as Act!  Isn’t it about time you get into the Act?

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October 17, 2006 - Posted by | Reviews, Software, Windows, Windows Mobile

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