Flexible set up but limited administration tools define this contact management software's appeal
For many departments and agencies looking to standardize on a contact-management
system, the choice has been an uncomfortable one between adopting an off-the-shelf
package designed primarily for sales forces or calling in a programmer to
custom-design an application. Act! 2000 gives IT managers another option.
As it happens, during my evaluation of Act! 2000 the product was sold
by Symantec Corp. to SalesLogix, an Arizona-based company that provides
sales automation solutions. And indeed, this new release of Act! does include
a number of new features that are aimed directly at sales forces.
But the program's traditional strengths — especially its flexible design
mode for creating custom forms — continue to suit it well for any small-
to mid-sized department or agency that needs a solution for managing heavy
My installation of Act! went without a hitch. Setting up a database
for workgroup use was no problem either. I just used the File/New command
to create a new Act! database on a network drive, then called up an administration
screen to add users and specify passwords and access rights for them.
At this point, I ran into the one significant snag for those installing
the product for large numbers of networked users: The administrator must
locally configure each user's desktop with the location of the shared database.
Out of the box, Act! 2000 will be relatively familiar to anyone who
has used a personal information manager (PIM). As with any good PIM, lots
of attention has gone into the interface design, much of it to come up with
ways to get information into a clear, usable, even appealing format.
Act! offers users a choice between 11 preset layouts of data fields
and lists. In addition, users can create and save their own layouts. The
predesigned screens are well-designed and allow users to readily enter and
view contact information, schedule an activity, or view a calendar, contact
list, or contact notes and history.
After exploring the interface, I imported a contact list with appointments
and tasks from Microsoft Outlook 2000. Since Act! provides a direct conversion
from this format (along with several others), I didn't have to either map
fields or import data via a delimited text file. The process was simple
Next I created a group intended for contractors and in-house staff working
on a single project, with subgroups for project divisions, and a second
group for employees of one of our larger contracting firms. I soon found
Act!'s contact groups saved a lot of time in organizing and tracking contacts.
The program makes it a snap to check up on contact histories, though it
doesn't offer the kinds of tools for scheduling and performing future contacts
that you'll find in a full-fledged customer relations management (CRM) application.
Act! 2000 also offers a powerful set of search tools. You can turn to
either the full set of fields in the query screen to perform queries by
example, or you can use the Query Helper's lists of fields and syntax to
build a proper Boolean query. Simpler lookups allow you to find contacts
by keyword and selected field searches, and you can progressively narrow
or expand the list returned by the initial search.
You can also add saved queries to the program's menus. Even slicker,
they can be assigned icons and popped onto the toolbar, enabling one-click
Combined with the program's design features — including the option of
creating all-new layouts and forms with drop-down lists for any field — this command customizability provides a remarkable capacity to remake Act!
to suit your department's needs.
Act!'s excellent data-synchronization capabilities are geared toward
keeping teams on the same page. Synchronizing remote users' databases with
the central database may be performed by e-mail, direct modem-to-modem connection
or by accessing a database in a shared network folder.
If Act! has an Achilles' heel, it is in the area of central administration.
I was unable to find an effective method of distributing customizations,
such as preferences settings, queries, macros, layouts, and report templates,
short of going around to each installed system and repeating what is in
some cases a fairly detailed setup procedure. This quickly gets tedious
and may effectively limit the organizational size for which implementation
Act!, in short, is best suited for small- to mid-sized departments that
need a strong contact-management solution that goes beyond the likes of
standard PIMs, such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Organizer.
Tom Marshall is a free-lance writer who has been reviewing computer
software for the past 10 years.
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