Outlook CRM and Contact Management - Keeping It Simple

Download the article in PDF FormatThis 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 Outlook CRM

Read about MX-Contact, a complete CRM system for Microsoft Outlook

1.The Problem

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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2.The 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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3.The Basics of any Contact Management System

Any contact management application needs at least the following basic functionality:

  • 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 same contacts.

  • A means to schedule tasks and to-do’s for those contacts.

  • A mechanism to record any kind of interaction with a contact, namely meetings, phone calls, e-mail, documents, etc.

  • Some way of storing documents sent to and received from a contact.

  • A way to send and track e-mail communication.
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4.Outlook's Inherent Contact Management Functionality

Microsoft Outlook is Microsoft’s messaging and personal information management program that helps you manage the following:

  • Contacts
  • Scheduling (Calendar/Appointments)
  • Time/To-Do Management (Tasks)
  • Activity Tracking (Journals)
  • Messaging (Inbox/E-Mail)

With reference to the requirements list above, Outlook at least satisfies the following requirements:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. A means to schedule tasks and to-do’s for those contacts: Outlook’s task management facility is excellent for this.

  4. 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 such activities.

  5. 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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5. Limitations of Outlook

As a contact management application however, Outlook has the following limitations:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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6. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 interactions.

  3. 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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7. Other Advantages of using Outlook as your Contact Management/CRM System

There are several other distinct advantages to deploying Outlook as the basis for contact/customer management. We summarise them here:

Ease of Use:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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 implementation time.

  4. 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 application.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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 familiar with.

  8. 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:

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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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9. MX-Contact

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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10. MX-Contact.NET

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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11. Summary

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 management.

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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12. About the Author

This article was written by Brian Drury, founder of ExchangeWise (www.exchangewise.com), 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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