When it comes to small business CRM (Customer Relationship Management) few vendors can rival Sage with its popular Windows-based ACT! product. A long established, affordable and very usable solution, the latest ACT! 2011 release builds on an already comprehensive set of CRM tools, adding new built-in automation facilities plus support for a number of optional add-on services.
Two editions of the Sage package are available: ACT! 2011 Pro (£180 + VAT per user) aimed at individuals and small workgroups, and a Premium edition (£295 + VAT per user) for networks of ten users or more. Premium Edition buyers also get optional browser-based access, plus extra data sharing facilities including team dashboards, group scheduling and advanced synchronisation tools.
System requirements are modest: just a PC running Windows XP or above, with full support for Windows 7 plus 64-bit deployments from Vista onwards. Installation, too, is very simple, with a single setup to install both the ACT! software and the supporting SQL Server database.
We used the free SQL Server Express product for our tests, running on an ordinary desktop PC. However, in large organisations the product can also be hosted on servers running Windows Server 2003 or later and deployed on workgroup or Active Directory networks.
The setup routine will also integrate the ACT! software with Office, where available. Support for all versions of Office from 2003 onwards is provided including, in this new version, the latest Office 2010 release.
The changes in ACT! 2011 make themselves felt as soon as you start to use the program although, apart from being tidied up, the user interface doesn’t alter that much. You do, though, get an enhanced Welcome page complete with instructional videos, the ability to import existing customer records from Excel and new layouts to help new users get started.
We also found the program a lot snappier and responsive, added to which Sage has at long last sorted out Outlook integration. As a result it now doesn’t matter whether you use ACT! or Microsoft’s client to manage your contacts and calendar: the same data is always available and synchronisation automatically taken care of.
Security is also tightened with, in the Premium edition, new customer profile and file attachment controls to stop sensitive data being accessed by unauthorised staff.
The most compelling new feature, however, has to be Smart Tasks which can be used to automate business processes. A visual editor makes light work of this, with pre-configured templates for common tasks to, for example, follow up on contacts with no email or other activity for 90 days, send welcome messages when new contacts are added and so on. These templates are easy to customise and extend and no programming expertise is needed, although it did take a lot of experimentation before we were confident with how this option worked.
As well as enhancements to the core package, support for three optional new services has also been added, including ACT! E-marketing, through which it’s possible to build, send and keep track of marketing campaigns. This can all be done from within the desktop ACT! program itself with results, similarly, updated into ACT! contact records. Of course you have to pay extra for this option with prices starting at £19.95 + VAT per month, and rising dependent on the level of service purchased.
Also new in this release is ACT! Mobile Live, to allow users to access their ACT! data on their mobile phones. An online-based service, Mobile Live gives ACT! users access to contact, calendar, notes and history information with support for most standard mobile handsets and both Blackberry and Windows Mobile smartphones. Support for Apple’s iPhone, however, won’t be available until later this year. A one year Mobile Live subscription costs $120 per user, with a free 30-day trial available to check for compatibility.
And lastly there’s Sage Business Information Services for ACT!, to provide access to potential sales leads generated by Hoovers, a third-party provider of business intelligence data. Again the service is integrated into the desktop application with prices for this service available direct from Hoovers (www.hoovers.com/freeuk).
In terms of usability, little else changes in ACT! 2011 and if it has an Achilles heel it has to be its fairly steep learning curve. Still, that hasn’t stopped over 3 million users taking advantage of what the product has to offer and pushing it to the top of the tree as far as the small business CRM market is concerned.
Whether it’s worth those customers upgrading to the latest release, however, is debatable. Improved Outlook integration and Smart tasks are the obvious selling points, with the optional extra services less so, apart from ACT! Mobile Live which has clear benefits in an increasingly mobile world.
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