Customer relationship management (CRM) is all about keeping on top of customer calls, e-mails, letters and any other communications made and received during the business day. Marketed primarily as a sales tool, think of it as an electronic personal assistant, able to keep track of all your customer communications and business transactions. Moreover, just like a good PA, a CRM system can prompt you to follow up on sales leads, help manage marketing campaigns and generally stay on top of business activities, making it a valuable tool in all kinds of organisation.

Large enterprises have, traditionally, been the main buyers for CRM, serviced by vendors such as SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and Products from these suppliers also sell well lower down the food chain, with cloud-based solutions increasingly popular here. A number of open source products are also to be had. However, when it comes to the small business market, the leader has to be Sage with its Windows-based ACT! that can be scaled from one to over a hundred users.

What is it and who is it for?

ACT! 2011 is the latest release of what Sage describes as a contact and customer relationship application. Written to run on Windows it can be used by individuals, workgroups or even whole companies, with the data managed and used by the product stored in a SQL Server database.

Most buyers use ACT! as their primary work tool, typically, using the built-in Windows interface, with Web and mobile access also possible. ACT! users also benefit from close integration with Outlook, Gmail and other e-mail/collaboration products, as well as social networking tools such as Facebook and LinkedIn, plus the Sage 50 Accounts package also popular with small businesses.

The 2011 version sees a number of enhancements both to performance and usability with, for example, a re-vamped Welcome page and the ability to import existing customer records from Excel. A number of new features have also been added, most notably Smart Tasks, to automate workflows such as sending out reminder e-mails when contracts are due for renewal and launching marketing campaigns according to pre-set schedules.

Outlook integration is much improved in this release and three optional new services added. The first of these (ACT! E-marketing) can be used to manage online marketing campaigns, while the second (Sage Business Information Services for ACT!), can help generate sales leads using business intelligence supplied by a third party supplier called Hoovers. And last, but by no means least, there’s ACT! Mobile Live, giving users access to ACT! data on their mobile phones.

Pricing & setup

Two editions of ACT! 2011 are available?Pro and Premium. The Pro edition costs £180 (ex. VAT, per user) and is for individuals and small workgroups of up to ten, with SQL Server Express bundled as part of the package to host the necessary database of contact and other customer information.

A unified setup routine installs both ACT! And the SQL Server software, with a simple tool to create a new database when the program starts. It can be run on any version of Windows from XP to the latest Windows 7 platform with 64-bit support from Vista onwards. It can also be hosted on servers running Windows Server 2003 or later and deployed on workgroup or Active Directory networks. On smaller networks without a server the shared database can also be hosted on a PC, although concurrent connection limits may be imposed by the desktop OS.

The Premium edition (£295 ex. VAT, per user) is for larger organisations with more than 10 users, typically, having access to a full SQL Server host, although SQL Server Express can still be used. Premium edition customers also get browser-based access through ACT! Premium for Web plus enhanced security and data sharing features, team dashboards, group scheduling and advanced synchronisation tools.

ACT! 2011 can be integrated with any version of Office from 2003 to the latest 2010 release, the setup routine handling the integration required. Volume discounts apply and upgrades are available for existing customers with software support and services available under the SageCover banner. The product can be purchased direct from Sage, business partners and a network of certified consultancies.

Additional subscriptions are required to take advantage of the new services added in this release. Prices vary depending on what you buy with a one year subscription to ACT! Mobile Live available for $120 (per user), while ACT! E-marketing can cost anything from £19.95 per month upwards, depending on the level of service purchased. Prices for the Sage Business Information Services for ACT! are set by provider Hoovers.

Does it do it well?

Over 3 million users are testament to how good ACT! is at delivering on its promises, and the 2011 release continues in that vein. Performance is enhanced, the user interface tidied up and Outlook synchronisation finally nailed such that it now doesn’t matter whether you use ACT! or Microsoft’s client to manage your contacts and calendar. Security is also tightened with, in the Premium edition, new customer profile and file attachment controls to stop data be accessed by unauthorised staff.

The most compelling new feature, however, has to be Smart Tasks making it possible to automate a variety of business processes. A visual editor makes light work of this, with a set of pre-configured templates also provided to handle common tasks, such as following up on contacts with no email or other activity for 90 days, sending welcome messages when new contacts are added and so on. We found Smart Tasks very easy to configure although you will need to spend time evaluating your business processes and deciding on which to automate to get the best out of this new feature.

Where does it disappoint?

There’s nothing particular difficult about the ACT! user interface, but as with previous versions new users may find it hard to get to grips with the procedures and workflows involved. As such we’d certainly recommend taking advantage of the various training and consultancy services available, both from Sage and its partners.

Bear in mind also that a lot of the extra functionality in the 2011 release is delivered via optional hosted services. These add value but aren’t included in the price and the extra subscriptions involved can be substantial. ACT! Mobile Live is the cheapest with a free trial to check out if it works with your devices. Most standard handsets can be used, along with both Blackberry and Windows Mobile smartphones. Support for Apple’s iPhone, however, won’t be available until later this year.

Would we recommend it?

ACT! 2011 has to be at the top the shopping list when looking for a small business CRM solution. Alternatives are available, but few can match its ease of use, particularly now that Outlook integration has been improved. Some cloud-based CRM services come close, but if a hosted solution is what you crave then Sage has that angle covered too, with its Web-based Sage CRM offering.

Existing ACT! customers, however, may need persuading as to the benefits of upgrading. Smart Tasks and better Outlook integration are the most obvious reasons for switching but support for the optional new services is less compelling. That said, the exception has to be ACT! Mobile Live, which has clear benefits in our increasingly mobile world. [9]