Outlook CRM and Contact Management - Keeping It Simple
This article looks at how you can
use Microsoft Outlook as your Contact Management and CRM system
without the installation of any additional client software
or Outlook Add-Ins, and still interface Outlook with your
back-end CRM or ERP system. Download the PDF version.
It represents a new, yet incredibly simple approach to CRM
that is guaranteed to work where other systems might fail
(or may already have failed). Equally important, for those
organizations wanting to adopt a CRM system, it is a very
good system to implement first, even if one later “graduates”
to a more comprehensive CRM application at a later stage.
Extend Outlook into a fully comprehensive CRM System
MX-Contact, a complete CRM system
for Microsoft Outlook
CRM has received a lot of negative publicity over the years
because of the failure rate of CRM implementation projects.
A recent Butler Group report found that 70 percent of CRM
implementations fail. A Gartner study found that approximately
55 percent of all CRM projects failed to meet software customers'
expectations. In a Bain & Company survey of 451 senior
executives, CRM ranked in the bottom three categories among
25 popular tools evaluated for customer satisfaction.
The findings of a poll of 100 SME organisations with CRM
implementations revealed that while 60% of sales directors
insist that CRM is fundamental to their sales processes, a
quarter have lost customers directly through their ineffective
use of CRM technology.
Essentially sales teams are not using their CRM systems
correctly with 44% of sales directors admitting that fewer
than 80% of their staff use the technology effectively. The
knock on effect is a loss of potential revenue and increasing
levels of customer dissatisfaction.
But sales directors themselves are hardly blameless with
72% confessing that they tolerate inefficient use of the CRM
they have invested in, while a mighty 73% do not discipline
staff who fail to use CRM systems. Common reasons for this
lack of use include:
- resistance to changing the way they work among sales people
- reluctance to use new technologies.
- lack of perceived benefit to the user
The main problem with sales CRM systems is that they are
usually too cumbersome and/or too complicated for many salespeople
to use. When confronted with a system that has a multitude
of screens, fields and processes, many salespeople just roll
their eyes and go back to the Excel spreadsheets that have
served them well for years.
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Simple Solution - Microsoft Outlook
The Fear of/Resistance to Change Syndrome: The
less the users have to change the way they work, the more
likely they will adopt any new system that is based around
what they are already used to. So if your users are already
sending mail, managing their own contacts in their own Personal
Contacts folder, and scheduling appointments with the Outlook
Calendar, they don’t want to change this.
The Resistance to Change factor has another side that’s
reflected in a popular saying namely “Up to the age
of 18 you make your habits; thereafter they make you”.
The reality of these words of wisdom is summarized as follows:
If a new system is introduced such that not only is training
required to learn the system but one also has to form a new
set of habits associated with the procedures necessary to
run the system, then it will take the average worker 3 to
6 months to develop these new habits to the point where they
are ingrained into their daily work routines. And invariably
if the user does not see sufficient benefit in the system
soon enough (i.e. before these new habits are fully developed),
then they continue to do what they were doing before the new
system was introduced and as such the new system falls into
disuse. One common excuse we used to get during post-implementation
audits from users who were found not to have been entering
activities into the new CRM system was “Oh, I keep forgetting
to open the system”, or “it takes too long to
open the system when I need it”.
Reluctance to Use New Technology: If everyone
is already using Outlook, and has been trained on Outlook,
or at least has become familiar with its functionality then
there is no impact on their daily routine. They continue to
use the same elements of Outlook in the same way they’ve
always done. Microsoft has made enormous investments in studying
the usability of Outlook and soliciting user feedback. So
why reinvent the wheel when the users already know (and usually
love) this interface.
The “WIIFM” (What's In It For Me) Concept:
Here Outlook definitely comes to the rescue. Users
already appreciate the benefits of Outlook as a “Personal
Information Manager”, especially as Microsoft touts
Outlook as being one. The emphasis on Personal implies the
primary benefit is to the user and not necessarily the company.
So Microsoft in that sense has solved the issue of “What’s
in it for me?”
Having looked at the fact that Outlook certainly addresses
some of the “human” factors associated with a
CRM implementation, we still need to look at how well Outlook
meets the challenge in terms of functionality. We can do this
by looking first at the basics of a Contact Management system,
which still today is the core of any CRM system.
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Basics of any Contact Management System
Any contact management application needs at least the following
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- A mechanism to store and profile Contact information.
- A means to plan and organize appointments with those contacts,
not only for yourself but other team members managing those
- A means to schedule tasks and to-do’s for those
- A mechanism to record any kind of interaction with a
contact, namely meetings, phone calls, e-mail, documents,
- Some way of storing documents sent to and received from
- A way to send and track e-mail communication.
Inherent Contact Management Functionality
Microsoft Outlook is Microsoft’s messaging and personal
information management program that helps you manage the following:
- Scheduling (Calendar/Appointments)
- Time/To-Do Management (Tasks)
- Activity Tracking (Journals)
With reference to the requirements list above, Outlook at
least satisfies the following requirements:
- A mechanism to store and profile Contact
information: The “Contacts” folder
in Outlook already allows a comprehensive profile of any
personal or business contact to be maintained.
- A means to plan and organise appointments
for those contacts: Outlook’s calendaring
facilities provide these very effectively and when coupled
with Exchange Server incorporate a huge number of collaborative
features that are extremely difficult for any other stand-alone
CRM system to emulate or reproduce.
- A means to schedule tasks and to-do’s
for those contacts: Outlook’s task management
facility is excellent for this.
- A mechanism to record any kind of interaction
with a contact: The “Journal” facility
of Outlook contains the standard fields necessary to record
phone calls, meeting, etc. with clients, and can even time
- A way to send and track e-mail communication:
The Inbox and Sent Items stores inward and outward e-mails.
However, while Outlook does have the basic foundation for
solid contact management functionality, there are certain
limitations of Outlook that one needs to be aware of.
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Limitations of Outlook
As a contact management application however, Outlook has
the following limitations:
- Private Mailbox (Contacts, Appointments, etc.): Without
setting up and customising Public Folders, most users will
just utilise their Private Mailbox Contacts
folder for managing their contacts, thus limiting the sharing
of that information and potentially creating massive duplication
of the same data within the organisation.
- Contact-centric: By virtue of their being only a Contacts
folder (and no Companies folder), Outlook tends to be Contact-centric
rather than Account-centric, which can be limiting for those
users managing corporate accounts.
- Discrete, independent folders: Most users tend to use
their Outlook folders as discrete elements, i.e. because
it is fairly cumbersome for users to link one item to another,
(e.g. a contact to an appointment) they seldom do this.
Thus it is difficult for users in the organisation to get
an overall picture of all the activity occurring within
the organisation against any particular company or contact.
The universal objective of any CRM system however, is to
provide a “single-view of all customer-related information
to everyone in the organisation”.
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Overcoming Outlook's Limitations
By installing an application like MX-Sync (www.exchangewise.com/Products/MXSync)
that synchronizes Outlook data between Exchange Server Private/Mailbox
folders and a back-end SQL database, the above-mentioned limitations
can be overcome.
- By providing two-way synchronization between a user’s
private Contacts folder and the corporate database, everyone
is updating the same common customer list, rather than each
maintaining separate ‘Personal’ Contacts folders
that are not visible to anyone else. One still has the ability
to keep certain contacts "private" simply by not
marking them with the Category that identifies to MX-Sync
that a contact should be added to the corporate database.
- By providing automatic linking and copying of e-mails,
journals, tasks and appointments to the corporate database,
the whole company is informed about all important customer
- By linking e-mails, appointments etc. to the relevant
contact(s), everyone can get a view of all activity occurring
with a specific customer.
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Other Advantages of using Outlook as your Contact Management/CRM
There are several other distinct advantages to deploying
Outlook as the basis for contact/customer management. We summarise
Ease of Use:
- Outlook is always the first application to be
opened: Whenever knowledge workers arrive at their
place of work each day, Outlook tends to be the first application
that is opened, given that one needs to check what e-mail
has been received since last clocking out of the office.
He or she therefore opens by default the application needed
for Contact Management. One of the greatest obstacles to
overcome in the implementation of any CRM system is to get
the users into the habit of opening the new system. With
Outlook this is not an issue.
- Outlook is always kept open: The nature
of customer interaction is that it is very often re-active,
sporadic and impromptu. Therefore it is imperative that
the application used to log these interactions is always
“at one’s fingertips” so to speak. Given
that users keep Outlook open all day so as to respond timeously
to e-mail ensures that this is the case.
- Familiar Interface: If users are already
utilising Outlook for at least e-mail and calendaring then
they are already familiar with the interface and how to
add new items, edit existing items, etc. Thus there is usually
very little requirement for extensive training when an Outlook
system is deployed. This dramatically shortens the average
- Increasing Percentage of E-Mail Interaction:
An ever-increasing number of users are discovering the advantages
of e-mail communication over other forms of contact (phone,
fax, letter, etc.). So as e-mail becomes more widely used
for customer interaction, it makes sense to deploy your
e-mail client as the primary vehicle for managing customer
communications, rather then utilising a totally different
- One calendaring system universal across company
& supply chain: Given that the vast majority
of corporate users are utilising Outlook, it is easy for
instance to send meeting requests to suppliers or customers,
who can then use many of the same collaboration features
that are available to internal users/co-workers. Many CRM
systems have their own calendaring system and given that
not all users will (or can) necessarily adopt this system
means that one has to immediately contend with the problem
of keeping these dissimilar calendars synchronised so that
all users can effectively co-ordinate their diaries.
- One e-mail store: Many of the conventional
database-based CRM systems on the market have difficulty
linking to e-mails given that an e-mail is not the same
type of object as say a document. For this reason most systems
not running inside Outlook tend to copy the contents of
an e-mail into their database tables, thereby effectively
duplicating the data and also disconnecting it from its
original item, thus losing its formatting and also making
handling of “Replies” and “Forwards”
to the item difficult.
- One document management system: Some
CRM systems also copy documents into their database so as
to enable replication of these documents to remote users.
The disadvantage of this approach is that a document can
only be edited from within the CRM system and not also from
its original source on the Windows File System or Exchange
Public Folder in the way that most users would already be
- Easy synchronisation with most PDA’s:
Given that all PDA’s synchronise with Outlook as a
standard, this means that you have automatic access to your
Contact Management data if it is kept in Outlook rather
than being in another application.
Reduced Cost of Ownership:
- No additional Infrastructure Needed:
If a company already has the infrastructure in place necessary
to run Outlook on client machines and Exchange Server, then
no additional client or server hardware is needed to run
an Outlook-based system.
- Cost of upgrade to new versions of Outlook shared:
Very often a client has to justify the costs of upgrading
Office as well as the costs of purchasing the CRM application.
With an Outlook-based solution this upgrade cost is shared
given that the company receives a whole host of additional
benefits and functionality from upgrading Office/Outlook
as well as receiving a new CRM system.
- Reduced Training Time (Cost): Given
that users will already be familiar with the basics of Outlook,
the time needed to train users, and hence the cost of that
training, is significantly reduced.
- Wider Support Base: Given that there
are a large number of internal users and external consultants
that know Outlook and VBA/VBScript (used to extend its functionality)
it is easier and therefore less costly to enhance the functionality
and support your user base.
- Wider application of same training:
If a company invests in training its staff in the functionality
of Outlook, so as to more effectively use a CRM system based
on Outlook, then this knowledge of Outlook will be utilised
in everything a user does in Outlook, even those activities
not linked to customer management but more internal collaboration
etc. However, when one invests in training around a separate
proprietary system then this training can only be applied
to the use of that system and nothing else.
- Reduced Installation Time: Given that
an Outlook-based system installs itself inside Outlook,
it is a simple matter for IT personnel to install the system.
In many instances this can be done by the user him or herself.
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8. Extending Outlook into a full CRM System
Once your users have become familiar with all the Contact Management aspects of Outlook and used these to create a ‘clean’, shared, corporate database, they are ready to extend the functionality of Outlook to incorporate more advanced CRM facilities such as Opportunity Management or Campaign Management. These facilities may only be required by certain users.
Depending on whether these users are office-bound or ‘field’ workers, they can choose to install MX-Contact, an Outlook Add-In that connects directly to the same SQL database used by MX-Sync, or MX-Contact.NET, a web-based CRM system that can naturally be used anywhere where an internet connection is available. In both cases the user would still have full “offline” access to his or her Outlook folders (e.g. Contacts) that are kept in sync by MX-Sync from the server-side.
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MX-Contact (www.mxcontact.com) is a CRM, Contact Management and Sales Force Automation package that runs inside Microsoft Outlook 2003, 2007, 2010 and 2013.
The system utilises all the standard functionality of Outlook but provides many additional features that transform Outlook into a powerful CRM system. MX-Contact has 6 different versions available catering for a single user through to an enterprise with thousands of users.
MX-Contact comprises a Base System, which offers Contact Management functionality, with optional Sales, Marketing and Support Modules that can be added at any time, that extend MX-Contact into a fully comprehensive CRM system that can be utilised across all departments of the company.
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MX-Contact.NET (www.mxcontact.net) is a web-based CRM system with a user interface that matches that of Outlook and Outlook Web Access.
The system is designed so that it will be easy to learn for someone who is familiar with Outlook Web Access. However it is also designed to achieve tight integration with the Microsoft Outlook desktop client, in particular Contacts, E-Mail, Journals, Tasks and Appointments.
MX-Contact.NET is essentially 2 products in one, namely:
- A stand-alone web-based CRM product which can be used in a hosted ASP-type environment or installed by the client themselves using their own SQL Server(s).
- A web client companion product for the MX-Contact SQL Editions (SOHO and Enterprise). Any remote user wishing to update MX-Contact’s SQL Database from an internet café, hotel room etc. may do so using MX-Contact.NET. Only Internet Explorer is required on the remote computer. No client software is required at all.
MX-Contact.NET utilises the identical SQL database to the SOHO and Enterprise Editions of MX-Contact. Thus all data captured and edited within the SOHO/Enterprise Edition is visible and updateable over the internet via MX-Contact.NET.
MX-Contact.NET has a similar interface to both Outlook and Outlook Web Access, and so to all intents and purposes looks to the user as if he or she is actually running OWA. However, all CRM data is stored in the SQL database, and not in OWA Public Folders. MX-Contact.NET can be run as a web page from within Outlook, so that again, it looks to the user as if the system is “built into” Outlook.
MX-Contact.NET comprises a Base System, which offers Contact Management functionality, with optional Sales, Marketing and Support Modules that can be added at any time, that extend MX-Contact into a fully comprehensive CRM system that can be utilised across all departments of the company.
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Microsoft’s earlier promotion of Outlook as a “Personal
Information Manager” created the impression amongst
users that Outlook was only intended to manage one’s
personal contacts and was not suited as the basis for a corporate-wide
Customer Management System. However in conjunction with a
back-end SQL database that the majority off the office-based
organization has access to, Outlook can be a powerful tool
that satisfies most of the requirements for basic contact
The reality is that many mobile workers do not have time
to record more than just the basics of their interactions
with customers. And the fact that they can do this recording
via the standard Contacts, E-Mail, Tasks, and Appointments
functionality on their notebook via Outlook or on their Windows
Mobile or Blackberry devices and have this contact information
shared automatically with the rest of the company greatly
enhances the organization’s ability to manage their
customer base efficiently.
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About the Author
This article was written by Brian Drury, founder of ExchangeWise
and the architect of MX-Contact (www.mxcontact.com),
a CRM, Contact Management and Sales Automation System for
Microsoft Outlook. Brian has over 20 years experience in the
IT industry and has focused on Contact Management, CRM and
Collaboration systems for the last 14 years. During this time
Brian and his staff have been involved in over 200 direct
CRM project implementations covering 7 different products.
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