Small Business Software Review: Sage ACT 2011

by Jamie Bsales

Situated between spreadsheets and a full-blown CRM software package, Act 2011 delivers business database and email marketing features while improving ease of use.

The most powerful small business contact and customer management software just got better, with new access to business info databases and improved email marketing features.

Whether you're new to contact management software or a long-time ACT fan looking to upgrade, Sage ACT 2011 offers a lot to like. Already arguably the most complete small business software package available, the latest version adds new features -- most notably the Sage Business Information Services -- while also streamlining ease of use.

Small Business Software with CRM Functionality

Sage has carefully positioned ACT as "contact and customer management" software: a step up from spreadsheets or a simple Access database to house your customer information, but a step below a full-blown CRM (customer relationship management) platform. To put it another way, ACT delivers all the features you are likely to need, without the complexity and cost you don't.

Sage ACT 2011; small business software
The new welcome page in Sage ACT 2011 makes it easy for newcomers to get started and for old hands to find new features.
(Click for larger image)

Originally launched in 1987 (to call this small business software "mature" is understatement), the premise of ACT has always been straightforward: To let you store and manage your business contact information. Over the years the product has evolved as a sales force tool by including more advanced customer-management features, such as better tracking of opportunities and automated follow-ups to proposals.

Today, the goal of ACT is to ensure meaningful interactions with customers and clients by giving small business sales and customer-relations pros an organized view of the individuals they do business with.

Sage ACT Features and Benefits

ACT has a range of features that let you be prepared even for unexpected customer conversations. A history of past deals and interactions -- including email messages and your personal notes regarding phone calls -- are available when you drill down into a particular customer's entry.

This will save you from those awkward moments fumbling on the phone, madly searching in Outlook for the latest email thread to refresh your memory. ACT can even incorporate information from a customer's Facebook profile; so you can ask about the kids, for example, and show the customer he or she isn't just a number to you.

The program also helps you manage prospects with built-in sales-process workflows that you can customize to fit your business. You'll be able to keep detailed progress notes as an opportunity unfolds, and even see the probability of successfully closing a given deal.

Need to see how you and your staff are performing? ACT offers 85 built-in reports and quick-view "dashboards" that let you see opportunities at-a-glance by status, the percentage of deals that do and do not close, potential revenue of deals in the pipeline and more.

Another benefit is the time savings ACT provides by automating common tasks, such as sending follow-up "thank you" emails and the like. Key examples include the Sage ACT Smart Tasks: Handy in-program "digital assistants" that can handle mundane but important chores. For instance, a Smart Task entitled "closed opportunity follow up" can contain steps to automatically send an email notification to a designated manager when an opportunity is closed and won, send the new client a "welcome" email, and put an entry on your calendar to follow up with the new client by phone in seven days.

ACT includes a range of Smart Task workflow templates (and accompanying email message templates) covering what should occur for contacts with no recent activity, high-value opportunity alerts, new contact welcome and more. You can use a template as-is or customize it to suit your work habits.

ACT integrates with the software you likely already have and use, including Lotus Notes and Microsoft Outlook, Word and Excel. This lets you easily move information from ACT to Excel for example. More importantly, you can have your ACT and Outlook calendars and contacts sync automatically, rather than having to key in entries in both programs.

For example, if you accept a meeting invitation in Outlook, that meeting will also appear in your ACT calendar automatically, eliminating the need for double-entry and avoiding the possibility that information in one program fails to show up in the other. Similarly, ACT offers bi-directional integration with Sage's popular Peachtree Accounting package, so when you change customer information in one program, it's updated in the other.

Unlike earlier versions of the program, you and your sales staff are no longer tied to a PC to benefit from ACT. The ACT Mobile Live feature lets you access your ACT database -- including contacts, calendar, meeting notes and conversation history -- from your BlackBerry or Windows Mobile device. You can even add contacts or make changes to entries from your smartphone, so you don't have to worry about misplaced phone numbers or forgotten customer details as you work on the road.

If you want a full-on "cloud" implementation of the product, where you and your staff access the program via a Web browser, you can set it up that way on your own server or sign up for a subscription with one of Sage's SaaS (software-as-a-service) partners -- saving you from the hassle and expense of deploying the software yourself, while giving employees access no matter where they are located.

New Features in Sage ACT 2011

In addition to enhancements to Smart Tasks and Outlook integration, Sage ACT 2011 has a several important new features. First and foremost is Sage Business Info Services for ACT. Thanks to Sage's partnership with Hoover's, a business research firm that maintains a database covering 65 million companies, ACT 2011 lets you see contact information for 85 million professionals and pull that data directly into ACT.

You'll be able to identify new selling opportunities and build a prospect list by company location, industry, size and more, and sort contacts by title -- giving you a better chance of getting to the right person on the first try.

Sage ACT 2011 also beefs up its e-marketing prowess with Sage E-marketing for ACT This cloud-based email marketing service, powered by Sage partner Swiftpage, lets you execute sophisticated multi-stage email campaigns right from within ACT, with no need to import/export contacts and other data.

The service (you get 60 days free with the purchase of ACT, and subscriptions thereafter start at $14.95 per month) lets you launch an email campaign to a targeted list of contacts, then track which customers opened or forwarded the email and more. You can also easily capture additional leads with Web forms on your website, nurture those prospects automatically with drip marketing plans and identify your hottest leads using a ranked call list that tells you which prospects are likely most interested.

Sage ACT 2011; small business software
Smart Tasks let you easily program ACT 2011 to perform common tasks automatically.
(Click for larger image)

Other improvements in ACT 2011 include the capability to directly import Excel data, and compatibility with Microsoft Office 2010 and Firefox.

Improved Ease of Use

For all its features, ACT is surprisingly easy to use and navigate, thanks in no small part to a re-designed "welcome" page that makes it easier to get started. That screen (and subsequent screens) features a row of "Big Easy" buttons along the top for common activities, such as adding a new contact, scheduling a meeting, creating a to-do list entry, searching the database, creating an email message and more. This saves you from having to dig through menu drop-downs to get to a desired action.

Also on the welcome screen are "Getting Started" links to topics such as quick start for new users, importing data from Excel, organizing contacts into groups and others. You can also jump to screens to set up your preferences and email settings, import data, and other chores anyone new to the program will have to execute.

In addition, the welcome page offers links to help you make sure you're getting the most out of ACT with links to topics like new/improved features, explanations of Opportunities and Smart Tasks, searching, and using Outlook with ACT.

The far right of the page features links to video tutorials where you can see a tour of the ACT workspace, Outlook integration in action, Smart Tasks and more. The bottom third of the welcome screen is occupied by live links that Sage pushes out, and it contains items such as links to register for ACT training webcasts, links to the active online community (22,00 strong, according to the company), and featured applications within ACT.

At any point you skip all that and jump right to the area you need to work in by clicking on the desired entry in the left-hand column: Contacts, Groups, Companies, Calendar, Task List, Opportunities, Reports and Dashboard. Naturally, you'll spend a fair amount of your time on the Contacts page, which in "details view" shows the contact's "business card" info -- name, company, title, phone address and so on -- at the top.

A row of tabs below the business card helps organize all of the stuff (for lack of a better word) related to that contact. There are tabs for activities, opportunities, history, notes, documents, Web info (such as the contact's Web site, or Google directions to his place of business) and much more. Admittedly, the sheer number of choices is somewhat imposing, but the tabs are clearly labeled, making it a snap to jump to just the info you need.

We're also impressed with ACT 2011's Smart Task builder. Constructing a "workflow" sounds intimidating, but the visual flowchart interface makes it fairly straightforward. You can select one of the workflow templates, then add or edit steps as suits your particular need by clicking on the clearly marked buttons. At each step, a dialog box pops up where you can enter the particulars.

Sage ACT 2011 Pricing

Sage ACT 2011 is available in two editions. The Premium edition lists for $459.99 and includes all the program's features -- contact and customer management, Web access, group scheduling, dashboards and more. The Pro version, which sells for $229.99, delivers the basics, but does away with Web access, group scheduling and dashboards. Sage also offers specialized editions targeted at financial professionals and real estate offices.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with more than 16 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Dec 1st 2010
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