ACT! by Sage 2009 review

£180
Price when reviewed

Doesn’t it make a difference when you call a company and the person you’re speaking to immediately has your details on the screen in front of them and knows how to proceed with your enquiry? In large organisations, this ability derives from the use of specialist Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software provided by heavyweight software vendors such as Oracle or SAP. Small businesses need this kind of information every bit as much, but their software requirements, and their budgets, are very different.

One product that has been filling this niche for over twenty years is ACT!. Unlike those enterprise-level CRM solutions, ACT! is specifically tailored to small operations – anything from one to ten staff (though a scaled-up version called ACT! Premium is available for larger companies). It was previously owned by Symantec, but for some years now has been part of the stable at Sage, which produces a wide range of accounting and other business software.

At its core, ACT! is a contacts database. What makes it more than just a glorified address book is its ability to connect each individual’s or company’s record to a log of all your dealings with them and to all the correspondence, emails and other documents that were involved. In this way you can see what’s happened, what needs to be done and what the trends are.

In part this is to ensure that you have all the relevant details to hand whenever you need to deal with a client. And, in part, it provides a basis for analysis. As well as looking at individual contacts, you can group and categorise contacts in different ways, either manually or automatically according to user-defined criteria. There’s a wide range of graphical output possible and the interactive Dashboard provides an effective way to bring this together. You can create different Dashboard layouts to suit specific needs and save them for future use.

If you wanted to you could operate almost entirely within ACT!. It has its own email client and word processor, both of which are well designed and more than adequate for normal business needs. Realistically, though, most users are likely to be familiar with Outlook and Word and won’t be keen to change. Fortunately, ACT! provides excellent integration with both programs as well as with Lotus Notes and a number of specialist business programs covering areas that range from invoicing to HR.

All the database operations in ACT! are handled by Microsoft SQL Server, but users are shielded from it and need hardly be aware that it’s there. ACT! provides the front-end and wraps everything up in a familiar interface that requires no knowledge or experience of database use. Installation too is very well handled and well explained in the documentation. As well as SQL Server and ACT! itself, the installer also downloads and installs Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 if it isn’t already present. Up to ten users can share the same database, with one machine acting as the server and the others as clients.

ACT! is updated on a regular yearly cycle so versions tend to advance incrementally rather than by large leaps. However, the cumulative improvement over recent years has been significant. This year, the most interesting new features are mainly around improved integration with Microsoft Outlook. In particular, you can now quickly attach multiple emails to any contact in ACT!, create an ACT! activity – for example, a follow-up meeting – directly from within an email in Outlook, and use Outlook Rules to control how emails are recorded in ACT!. Combined with improved access to the Outlook Calendar, this makes integration between the two applications even more seamless than before. Also, significant are some housekeeping improvements, such as the ability to schedule backups and other maintenance tasks, and the option to speed up backups by excluding attachments from backup files.

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