Turn Outlook into a CRM Platform

Jamie Bsales

Updated · Jan 22, 2007

Customer relationship management (CRM) and sales force automation (SFA) applications can be a boon to any sales- or service-based business. CRM solutions help you manage, streamline and improve the day-to-day contact with existing and potential customers, while SFA apps automate the various stages of the sales pipeline so opportunities don't slip through the cracks.

There is no shortage of excellent CRM and SFA solutions targeted at small business owners, whether you prefer a traditional application you install locally (ACT comes to mind) or a Web service that you access remotely (such as Salesforce.com or Salesnet.com). But most offerings require you and your employees to commit to a dedicated application, and use it in addition to or instead of Microsoft Outlook.

That can be especially daunting to businesses that have long used Outlook to mange their contacts, to-do lists and calendars. So rather than take the plunge, many businesses simply continue making due. That's where Prophet from Avidian Technologies comes in. Now in version 4.0, Prophet is an Outlook plug-in that lets you leverage your existing familiarity with that platform to ease into CRM and SFA.

Designed for Small Business
Prophet can serve an individual or an entire organization, depending on your needs. For individuals and small teams, simply load Prophet on each individual's workstation. For larger workgroups or entire organizations that need to share data, server versions are available. There's also a remote Prophet client for traveling team members, whether they use a PC or a PDA. As with Outlook Remote Access, road warriors work with a snapshot of the data stored on the company server, which gets updated whenever they connect to the company's network.

The real benefit of Prophet is how seamlessly it integrates with Outlook. Prophet i4.0 works with Windows 2000 and XP (and soon, Vista), and it supports Outlook 2000, 2002, 2003, and soon the new Outlook 2007. It adds four folders to Outlook's folder tree in the left-hand pane — click on one and it launches an intuitive, tabbed interface that lets you explore each area in detail.

Tracking Contacts and Opportunities
Prophet's top-level Dashboard gives you a quick view of the day's activities. You'll find an at-a-glance list of all the sales opportunities you have in process, and which stage they are in (initial contact, proposal, and so on). Click on one to get the details of that record, including contact info, notes and related e-mail correspondence.

Next in the folder tree you'll find the Opportunity Manager folder, which is a list of all the opportunities you've created. And creating a new opportunity couldn't be easier: As you get an e-mail that could be a prospect, simply click on the “Create Opportunity” button that Prophet added above your e-mail preview pane. That automatically creates a record that containing the original e-mail, contact info and so on. The Opportunity Manager also lets you easily send a personalized mass e-mail to any (or all) the people on your opportunity list (say, to announce a special promotion or to thank them for their interest).

The list of opportunities is completely customizable (you can choose which columns get shown and in which order), as well as sort-able. For example, you can sort the list by date, deal size, probability of a deal closing — whatever criteria you feel are most important. This ensures important deals don't get pushed to the bottom of the list by newer, but less-profitable (or less-probable) prospects.

Prophet 4.0 screen shot
Prophet 4.0 adds four folders — plus a world of CRM functionality — to Outlook, and you get to keep working in the program's familiar interface.
(Click for larger image)

The Contact Manager folder lets you sort and search all your Outlook (and hence Prophet) contacts. Even better (and unlike Outlook proper), you can find any e-mail, tasks or appointments related to the chosen contact. Also unlike Outlook, Prophet lets you create a contact record for a company, not just an individual. This lets you see at a glance who in your database is associated with a given company.

The Report Manager folder is populated with 35 common reports in seven categories, which let you quickly see deals in the pipeline, likely revenue from those deals and so on. You can set your parameters (say, a date range) and output the data to Excel or generate a chart (in PDF format) directly.

Entry-Level Sales Automation
In version 4.0, Avidian has also built in basic sales automation features. This lets you set up a “trickle campaign,” that automatically creates e-mails, tasks, reminders or appointments for each stage of your sales process. This ensures that three weeks won't slip by between contacts with a hot prospect.

Keep this in mind: You're accessing all of these areas through Outlook, so your mail, to-do-list, contacts and calendar are never more than a click away. There's no need to toggle between Outlook and another application, nor the need to route your e-mail through another product to easily grab contact information from incoming mail. And Avidian has included powerful search tools that let you search for a term in a variety of ways: in all of Outlook, just Prophet data, just contacts, just e-mail and so on.

The price for all this functionality is very reasonable. Prophet Personal Edition 4.0 costs just $149.95. The Pro Edition ($249.95) adds the sales automation features and server support. Larger organizations can choose Professional Server Edition (from $299.95 per user) or the high-end Enterprise Server Edition ($399.95).

If you've been haunted by the need for a true CRM solution, but couldn't leave the comfort of Outlook behind, Prophet 4.0 is worth a look. It lets you transition to CRM at your own pace, without having to learn a whole new platform the day you install it.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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