No matter what type of business you're in, people are important to your success. You need to know as much as possible about your customers, clients, prospects, suppliers, employees and even competitors.
Keeping track of people is getting harder. There was a time when all you needed were phone numbers and addresses. These days people also have fax numbers, pagers, cell phones, Web sites and e-mail addresses, not to mention remote and home offices. And to make matters worse, people don't seem to answer their phones anymore. I spend half my day leaving voice messages and the other half listening to the ones people leave for me.
I don't have a solution for all of life's communications problems, but I do know about some software that can help you keep track of vital information about the people your business depends on.
Database-management programs have been around for decades. At their basic level, they can be used to store information about people and things in a way that's easy to enter, sort, find and print. But a couple of database programs are designed especially for keeping track of business contacts. Goldmine and ACT enable you to record notes about conversations, keep records on sales prospects, manage individual and team activities and link your various activities so that you have a single integrated information system.
Goldmine (Windows 95 and Windows NT) from Goldmine Software (http://www.goldminesw.com,  654-3526) is a personal-data-management program, work-group coordination program and sales-automation tool. That's a lot of jargon, but these functions can be very important.
The program is a champ at contact management--keeping track of addresses, phone and fax numbers and so on. But once you're looking at a person's contact screen, you can also take notes about conversations, schedule meetings or enter in a reminder to call the person back. You can also use this area of the program to send the contact a fax using the fax software built into Windows 95, or you can send e-mail or write a letter using your word processing program. By including e-mail as part of the program, all incoming and outgoing messages are linked to your contact record.
The program is well integrated with the Internet. Users can set up pages on the Web to collect contact information from visitors. The process requires a Web administrator or someone at your Internet service provider to write a small program (called a CGI script) that tells the Web server what to do with the data. Once it's running, your Web site's visitors can enter data into your Goldmine database so you don't have to do the typing. Don't worry. There's no way for Internet users to erase, modify or look into your database.
Goldmine is available for about $170 (less a $100 mail-in rebate until June 30) for a single user, or $695 for a five-user package.
ACT (Windows, Windows 95 and Mac, $200) from Symantec (www.symantec.com,  441-7234) is the best-selling and one of the first contact-management programs. You can use it to set up meetings, schedule phone calls and coordinate activities for you or a work group. The program has a built-in calendar and can keep track of business contacts. Like Goldmine, all activities, notes and calendar items are linked to each person's contact record.
Though it doesn't have built-in e-mail, it does have links to other e-mail programs so you can send and receive mail without leaving the program.
ACT lets you attach documents (such as spreadsheets or word processing files) to a contact so you can quickly access a file when interacting with a business contact. To make life easier, there are 70 pre-defined fields and 10 pre-built layouts so you don't have to design your own database from scratch. But you still have plenty of control should you want to add you own fields or modify the layout of the screen or printout. One nice feature, duplicate record checking, finds and removes duplicate entries from your database.
Both ACT and Goldmine offer free trial programs that you can download from their Web sites. The Goldmine demo expires after 60 days and the Act trial version is limited to 25 records.
Not everyone needs an industrial-strength contact manager. There are a number of small, inexpensive database-management programs and personal-information managers that work well for keeping track of names, addresses and other information if you don't need all the contact management features. Personal-information managers Sidekick or Lotus Organizer, for example, work fine as electronic Rolodexes and calendars.
There are plenty of database programs you can download, try for free and pay for if you decide to keep them. Instabase (Windows 95, $29.95) from EzeNet (www.instabase.com,  482-3037) is a basic database program that enables you to store phone numbers and add hot links to any e-mail or Web address in the database. Another handy program, Almanac (Windows 95, $39.95) provides a personal phone directory as well as a calendar. You can find Almanac and plenty of other "shareware" database programs by pointing your Web browser to http://www.download.com
Another option is to use Microsoft Works. Along with a word processor and spreadsheet, it contains an easy-to-use database-management program.
I can't recommend the current version of Microsoft Outlook, but version 98, which will be available soon, is an excellent all-in-one contact manager, e-mail program and calendar. Microsoft is conducting a free beta test of the program at its Web site (http://www.microsoft.com/msdownload).
Freelance writer Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org