Introducing Business Contact Manager

While Microsoft was busy cooking up Microsoft Customer Relationship Management (CRM) for small-to-midsized businesses last year, another effort was quietly under way to develop a totally client-based small-business tool. The result is Business Contact Manager (BCM), an add-on to Outlook 2003 that made its debut last month in Microsoft Office 2003 Beta 2. Microsoft announced last week that BCM will ship with Office 2003 Professional, both retail and volume license versions, and in a new Small Business Edition of Office that includes Microsoft Office Outlook 2003, Office Word 2003, Office Excel 2003, Office PowerPoint 2003, and Office Publisher 2003. BCM will also be available as a standalone product.

When I say BCM is a small-business tool, I mean really, really small--as in one person. The initial version is strictly for one user, but that doesn't detract from its potential for solo entrepreneurs and independent sales representatives who might have been looking at products such as Best Software's ACT! but want something more tightly integrated into Outlook.

BCM uses a classic accounts plus contacts plus opportunities paradigm that many sales people will find familiar or can adapt to the way they work. You can create new Outlook tasks and appointments related to BCM accounts, contacts, or opportunities.

For each account, contact, or opportunity, BCM maintains and displays a detailed history that has links to related messages, tasks, appointments, and files. One feature that's planned for the final version but that doesn't appear in beta 2 is the ability to automatically create history entries for outgoing and incoming email messages related to accounts and contacts.

The BCM architecture opens the door to speculation about where Microsoft might go with this product in future versions. Even though the accounts, contacts, opportunities, and history entries appear as Outlook items in their own folder hierarchy, BCM actually stores its data in a Microsoft SQL Server Desktop Engine (MSDE) database. In other words, the BCM data is separate from any Personal Folders .pst file or Exchange Server mailbox in the user's Outlook profile. BCM provides menu commands to back up and restore the database.

The BCM menus and toolbars in Outlook come from an Outlook COM add-in--the first, as far as I know, to use Windows .NET Framework. One of .NET's features is the Crystal Reports report engine, and BCM uses Crystal Reports to provide about 20 reports that combine data in ways that Outlook can't without considerable custom programming. For example, you can print an account list that includes the business contacts for each account or a history of all interactions with any given contact. The reports have a consistent look and some customization options. You can also save any report as a Word or Excel file for further manipulation.

Several key features that could make BCM a real winner are missing from the beta 2 version. (Keep in mind that products change between beta and final release.) BCM doesn't let you attach files to BCM items, which will seem odd to experienced Outlook users. However, BCM's ability to link to any Outlook item or system file should help users work around this limitation.

Perhaps the biggest source of frustration is the lack of direct PDA support. To load their account and contact data on their PDAs, BCM users need an application that can synchronize with multiple contacts folders or that can synchronize the BCM folders with users' main Contacts folder (which all synchronization tools support), but Microsoft's free ActiveSync program syncs only the main Outlook Contacts folder.

Companies that buy the Professional or Small Business Edition of Office 2003 and expect that BCM will let the vice president for sales roll up a unified view of the sales force's prospects will be disappointed. BCM doesn't let users share data. However, the MSDE design means the data is in a store designed for limited multi-user access. Perhaps some enterprising third-party developer will provide BCM multi-user capability after Office 2003 ships.

The other feature that I was surprised not to find is an Outlook folder home page on the top-level folder of the BCM hierarchy to provide some kind of summary view of all accounts, contacts, and opportunities. Microsoft CRM uses a folder home page to provide a unified interface for that enterprise sales and customer service application. Its little brother BCM could benefit from a folder home page too. Again, a third party could help by providing an attractive interface.

Because BCM is shipping in the Office box rather than just as a separate product, it has the potential to put contact-management tools beyond what Outlook offers into the hands of millions of small-business people. It will be interesting to see what Microsoft does with the feedback that results.

Corrections to this Article:

  • Microsoft's initial list of product editions was incorrect. BCM won't be available as a standalone product. Microsoft will include it only in the Small Business and Professional editions of Office 2003.
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