Forget about “where do you want to go today?” Most of us have to work for a living. The more meaningful question for me is “where am I supposed to be today… right now?!” We’ve come a long way from carrying crumbled notes in our pockets. I used to be wonderful at taking notes that I either couldn’t read or couldn’t remember what they were related to. Palm Pilots and other PDAs have helped solve the nuisance of lost notes, but even the Palm (it’s always in my pocket) isn’t a truly industrial strength organizer… it’s the best when you’re on the go, but I still haven’t seen anyone in their office with a Palm keyboard (don’t laugh, you can get one) typing correspondence or printing activity calendars.

I found the need for a contact manager long before the first Palm Pilot. Ten years ago, there wasn’t much in the way of choice. When in doubt, chose the market leader, right. Right? So my first experience in trying to tame chaos was with the now forgotten Polaris Pack Rat 3.0. What an eye-opener… this early windows program could do almost anything (or so it seemed at the time). It was configurable in a number of unique ways to allow you to associate lots of different things with contacts and to change the screen display any way you felt like it. Its only problem… it crashed a lot and you lost data when it crashed; not very acceptable over time. Finally the company was victim of the “tar baby upgrade” syndrome-the one that wouldn’t work right no matter what-and they went out of business around 1992.

Even before “the Rat” left the scene, Symantec ACT was making its mark. First came the DOS versions, with lots of business users, and then the Windows 2.0 version that became the dominant contact manager in the market. At one time the ACT market share was more than 80% of all contact management software in the U.S. The fact that it is less than that today (still number one) is only a result of dozens of competitors entering the marketplace. For most business situations, I believe ACT is still the clear winner among many fine applications.

ACT 4.0 is an incredibly rich program, allowing near infinite customization. Yet newbies are comfortable with it right out of the box and can start getting real value long before attempting to change a single default. Is it important to you to have reliable support? The terrific Symantec help desks, the many books and newsletters (Dummies works for most), and the 22,000 Symantec certified ACT trainers will all get you into the most intricate detail imaginable. If you want to experiment, there are User Groups throughout the country. Big sales don’t always mean “best technology” but sustained top sales tells you there is something pretty valuable here.

How do I choose the right contact manager?
This article won’t try to condense the ACT instruction manual. I may have a few tips, but I want to try to give you a more high level and personal view of why contact managers are so important in my life and work… and why I think you can also benefit from using one. I love my ACT, but it isn’t the only one out there. I worked for a company that made Lotus Organizer available free to anyone who wanted it… about half the employees chose that and about half purchased ACT with their own funds. There are sales managers who swear by Maximizer or Goldmine. And there are some custom apps that are company mandated. If you presently use a different contact manager and like it… don’t switch… keep on using it as long as you do like it. This isn’t a religious war to convert everyone to ACT. It’s a campaign to convert everyone to some contact manager. There’s just no excuse anymore to be late for or to miss a meeting . Most, if not all, of the benefits of ACT accrue just as nicely from Organizer or Maximizer. It’s just my personal belief (and a few million others) that ACT is easier to use and there is value in being part of the ACT community.

The first thing you need to know about ACT for Windows is that it is contact centric. That means that all entries and activities are associated with a contact file — not with you or with a calendar or with an application — as the primary path to organization. This is basically what distinguishes ACT from a personal organizer (I believe that Lotus Organizer and Microsoft Outlook are excellent personal organizer programs, but not real contact managers). The contact manager formats and organizes everything you want to have at your fingertips about some individual or company or account… whatever. The ACT screen can be customized a lot.

Don’t call Chris… he’s just a guy from the ACT sample database. You can change the appearance of this page in a number of ways… there are several “color” templates already created for you.

Furthermore there is a layout tool that allows you to change, rename, reorder, resize or create fields anywhere on the contact page. More than you need to know if you’re just starting out, but something you will want to do when you’re comfortable with the program. Notice that I show three primary phone numbers for each contact-office voice, fax, and cell phone. I added the cell phone field myself. On another page, I record pager numbers, home numbers, alternate numbers. Some would prefer all phone records on the same page (go for it); some would like only one phone number on page one, and all others listed together (go for it). I also wanted email addresses right up there in the main section on the first contact page view, so I dropped a default field and added the email one.

But this basic contact information is only half of the default “opening” view. The lower half of the screen allows a lot of rich custom data to be visible at the same time as the top half. You can show a number of different views or functions as your default on the bottom half and you can very easily switch back and forth among them. Below are some of the “normal” ones. The first is called “user fields” since you are expected to name or rename them to suit your business or preference.

The second is phone/home, generally used to record “personal” contact info as opposed to business data (you could reverse that bias if you chose).

Next is “groups” which reflects the fact that you can organize your main contact database into sub groups-a real boon to remember who was on a certain committee or to send a form letter to a frequently used mailing list.

Last is “activities” which records every activity you record with this contact-from letters to phone calls to meetings.

There are a couple of other tabs besides these for the bottom half of your screen, but one is more important than the rest. The “Notes/History” panel is your “daytimer” or journal for notes about this contact. This is a critical difference in using the ACT system versus the one you probably use now if you are using paper. Generally we keep our journals more along the lines of a diary than along the lines of an “account book” like a salesman. The diary format lets you go to a date and see everything you wrote on that date. ACT is more like an electronic “account book” with a contact entry for each account or person. It lets you go to a contact and see everything you have written about or done with the contact. The advantages become pretty obvious once you build up a store of data.

Say I’m speaking with the publisher of Go Inside about whether or not I’m late with an article… no problem… I know exactly what we agreed to because whenever I speak with him on the phone, I hit “F9″ function key to launch my Notes for his contact. I record simple yet fairly complete notes and the program enters a date and time stamp. So if in a later conversation, Mr. Publisher says I promised a draft by this Wednesday, I will have right in front of me (no searching for this) a note that I can refer to…”Jeez, I don’t know how we had this misunderstanding. Last Thursday when we spoke at 10:36am I mentioned to you that I couldn’t write the draft until Friday and you said OK.” Pretty effective if you take good notes… the effort is pretty minimal once the habit is formed and you simply will not believe how useful it will be over time.

If, on the other hand, you did want to see all the notes you wrote on a given day or week, there is a report function that is very simple to run (takes a few seconds, not minutes to search) that will list all your notes, calls, meetings, whatever for any day or date range. As you can see in the screenshot below, the menu has 10 canned reports, but you can create your own report and add it to the menu (or assign a keystroke shortcut to it). You can even use the dialer function to time your calls to people and run a day by day report of whom you spent your phone time with. One of the very cool searches you can do is search through (this takes a few minutes) all notes for any date range for key words… for example: from June 1, 1997 to February 18, 1999 find all references to the word Kodak and/or Nikon.

Word processor and email integrated
Oh, yes, you can use the built in word processor (which is excellent) or Microsoft Word or Word Perfect… a very simple selection in the preferences box. Take a look at the graphic below; there is an awful lot of customizing you can do with simple menu and radio button selections (later you can start making the hard core changes using the design tool, template redesign or the built in macro recorder that is as easy to use as the old Windows Recorder). You can decide how and if and when you want to be reminded of appointments, calls and tasks. You can select most email clients to work from within the ACT program (I currently use Microsoft Outlook 2000 ((for email only, not contacts))). You can print calendars of your contacts in day, week, month or custom periods in about 30 different sizes and formats (or customize one for yourself). It goes on… I think you get the idea. When you are new to the program, stick to this level of tinkering and once comfortable just go from there.

Networking isn’t my strong suit. At the lowest level, I do network with my Palm Pilot… many times a day. There is a free piece of software that can be downloaded from Symantec that performs flawless Pilot synchs for me. Others use remote synch feature to synch back to the office workstation from their laptops (my workstation is my laptop). You can load ACT on the network and share calendars, contacts and data (you can also mark anything “not public” and it will not be synched and shared).

ACT is a real database application. As such, it does use up some of your system’s resources. I’m running a 300MHz mobile Pentium with 128mb ram and the ACT program reduces both my GDI resources and USER resources by about 9-10%. This is fine if you don’t have a bunch of other big resource users running at the same time. Until recently, I ran ACT all day, with several MSIE 5.0 windows open and Eudora. I was crashing every day or two, so I took a look at resource use. Eudora or ACT had to go. Even though I feel that Eudora is hands down the best email client (and I get over 100 emails a day), it was an easy decision to drop Eudora to give ACT some breathing room. I switched to Outlook 98 (now 2000) which only created 1-2% resource drain, changed the setting in ACT to interact with Outlook instead of Eudora and I was off and running.

Space on the hard drive a concern? I installed the “full load.” That means all the help files and sample files, etc. I have over 1,500 contacts and associated notes and documents dating back to August 1993. All of this plus the ACT 4.0 program files take about 55 MB on my HDD. You could easily get this under 20 MB by not loading the extra help files and sample files. ACT has a maintenance routine you can run to eliminate duplicates and compress files.

Bottom Line
You won’t be disappointed with ACT. You’ll have more functionality than you will ever need… but whatever you find you do need will be there. If you can’t figure out how to use it, there is more help out there than for any other unique application that I am aware of. Nearly every office in the country has at least one self appointed ACT expert who is willing to help newbies and who loves to come up with the solution to the arcane feature you want to apply in some way no one ever has before. If you’re not lucky enough to be in such an office, there are dozens of good books, video tape tutorials, newsletters, consultants, and fabulous help files both on the CD and online from Symantec. The latest version is 4.02 (which is the shipping CD version for some time now). The upgrade was a free download. Symantec seems to have about a 2-2 ½ year cycle between semi-major upgrades, but they never make any pre-announcements. So we could see an upgrade in a month or a year. In the past, if they shipped a new version, they had a fairly liberal policy of giving the upgrade to recent purchasers… and the upgrade price was pretty reasonable anyhow… especially for an app that becomes so critical to how you run your life and/or you business.

Back up, back up, back up. Once you get hooked on a system like this, you will find that keeping it alive is critical. Using it is made valuable by capturing the output from minimal effort on your part over a period of time… but replacing all of this accumulated data at once would be a disaster… and unnecessary… back up, back up, back up… who knows… your hard drive could fail, you computer could be stolen, your office could burn down (it’s happened). Back up, back up, back up… have fun.

ACT! 4.0 will cost you around $175 on the street or you can get a $100 rebate if you upgrade from ACT! 2.0 or 3.0.