Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager

Business Contact Manager is an add-in for Outlook (2003, 2007), and comes either as part of Office Professional, Small Business or Ultimate suite, or with an Outlook bundle for $150 (the cost of Microsoft Outlook is about $110, the cost of Outlook with Business Contact Manager is $150). It works only with Outlook and this is why it's not sold separatelly. Though there is a new version of Outlook with BCM, the 2007 suite, this review focuses on the benefits (or headaches) that Outlook 2003 with BCM has. I'm still one of those that didn't update to Office 2007 (they still have to convince me that there's more than the glossy look) and that has no plans on upgrading to Vista. So is it worth to install the Business Contact Manager from a CRM point of view?

First of all, only starting with the new 2007 version you can buy Outlook with Business Contact Manager. In the 2003 version, you would have gotten the Business Contact Manager add-in by purchasing Office 2003 Professional or the Small Business Edition. By default, with the Office 2003 installation, the add-in would not install directly, so an additional step to install the add-in from the Office cd would have been needed. Microsoft also released some updates to BCM 2003, the latest update was service pack 4 which brought some changes.

outlook 2007

Here are the problems that I encountered in Outlook with Business Contact Manager, that made me decide not to use it since I could have gotten the same (or better) CRM functionality using Outlook without the add-in:

  1. BCM uses sql databases for creating and sharing your business contacts and accounts. While this sounds better than the way Outlook normally stores the contacts (in the .pst file so if that is corrupted then bye-bye contacts if you don't have a backup), it has the major disadvantage of being considerably slower. Think that everytime you do something to the business contacts in BCM a query is sent to the sql database, so you don't get the response as fast as with the normal contacts folder. Optimization in the way the communication with the sql database is done I hope is included in outlook 2007.
  2. Second thing I didn't like about BCM 2003 is the fact that the business contacts folder is separate from the normal outlook contacts folder and you don't get direct integration. For instance, if you receive an email from someone and you right click the From address, you have the option to Look-up in Contacts or Add to Contacts. Well the problem is that this will only look up in your normal Contacts folder and not in the Business Contacts folder that BCM created - major drawback since it makes the right-click options useless if you keep all your contacts in the Business Contacts folder that BCM created.
  3. Third problem with Business Contact Manager for Outlook 2003: You cannot design forms. You see, when you are adding a contact to BCM 2003 you have a specific form where you enter the name, address, and other information. With Outlook (without BCM) you can design a custom form where you could add some specific fields that apply for your contacts (say you want to add a checkbox that tells you if a customer has a specific version of the program that you're selling installed) and you can assign that specific custom form to be the default one for all the newly added contacts. Well if you're trying to do that with BCM 2003 it doesn't work, as you are prohibited from changing the default form - probably has something to do with having the contacts stored in an sql database. A ray of light shows though, as I've seen a comparison with Outlook 2007 and it said in the new version designing custom forms is possible.
  4. Now if designing a custom form is a bummer, how about adding a custom field? Well again some disappointment since using custom fields is not possible with BCM 2003. With Outlook 2003 without BCM you have on the last page of the New Contacts form an All fields tab. Well if you select that, you have the option to choose to display a field that you defined. This is not possible in BCM 2003 so again you are stuck with the default contacts template.
  5. Last thing that's not very appealing is the Import/Export options. For instance you can only export from BCM into .csv format and BCM format (database), and when I exported a test .csv file with contacts from BCM, Outlook didn't let me import it in a normal contacts folder, saying that the "file is in use" even after I restarted Outlook and made sure it's not in use (Excel opened it though I've seen some strange data in there, what would seem to be a unique id, maybe that's why Outlook didn't like it).

Combining all the above drawbacks I decided that the best way is to use Outlook 2003 without BCM, though I'll take a look in the future at the new 2007 version that says some of these issues are solved. Some features that Business Contact Manager 2003 adds to your normal Outlook installation:

  • first of all you have a new Business Tools menu item where all features of BCM are gathered
  • one of the options is the possibility of adding Products. Though this is very basic (you add the title, description, price) it might be helpful for simple products. These products can only be used along with the Opportunities, which basically are some normal Tasks but with additional fields (like assigning a product)
  • in this menu there is a List Builder mention that I thought would just be a better version of Mail Merge. However I've seen it's actually a way to import/export contacts to the List Builder service that Microsoft offers online, which is going to cost a monthly fee.
  • there is also a Business Services button that is mentioned as a source to get leads, however (at least in outlook 2003) that points to no existing page so a bug that'll never be fixed
  • BCM 2003 also allows defining accounts, a Business Account being sort of a category for your Business Contacts. Say you want to have all the contacts you have from one company in a single place, then you would create an account for it. Not very useful since you already can group your contacts by categories.
  • probably the most useful option in Outlook 2003 with business contact manager is the linking ability. What this does is linking all the items that involve a specific contact into a History view, where you can easily track whatever email you sent or received from them, task, opportunities or notes. I know that the basic Outlook also offers the Activities tab where you can see this, but in there you cannot see for instance the emails you received. A plus for BCM 2003 is also the fact that if you completely delete an email it will create a business note with the content of that email so that you have an accurate history even after you've emptied your deleted items folder. This is indeed the only thing that has an advantage (CRM wise) for using BCM 2003 over the normal Outlook 2003.
  • one other thing that the database driven contacts offer, is the sharing capabilities. You can share your contacts database easier with another colleague, but this also means that you're sharing the history items and everything that was linked to your contacts. A drawback of sharing is the fact that once a database is shared the linking options are disabled (you cannot link emails to contacts for instance).
  • almost forgot to mention the CRM reporting features that Outlook 2003 with Business Contact Manager offers. You can create about 20 different basic crm reports starting with the basic contacts list and finishing with reports like neglected contacts or past-due opportunities - feature that you don't have in the normal Outlook 2003 version.

Next stop would be to test Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager to do a comparison review with the 2003 edition. Microsoft already offers a comparison table in here - office.microsoft.com/en-us/contactmanager/FX101759331033.aspx

It would seem that the major drawbacks I mentioned above were corrected in the new version, like the fact that in Outlook 2007 with Business Contact manager you can customize forms, fields, and lists; you can use the mailing list tools (seems that you can filter your contacts to generate a list to email to); you can use the E-mail merge option that has been improved. So looking forward on testing the new version.

Related resources for Outlook 2007 with Business Contact Manager: