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The trick to managing your contacts by computer is to find software that works the way you do. Most independent professionals and small-business owners will find their needs are ably met by one of the many off-the-shelf contact manager or personal information management (PIM) programs. And many off-the-shelf programs, contact managers in particular, can be highly customized by the user or by a professional software consultant.

But ultimately, off-the-shelf programs do have their limitations: To make their programs easy to use, designers have had to reign in some of the programs' options. As a result, users with special needs -- to highlight certain data-entry fields with a particular color, say, or to input a contact's third E-mail address -- may find an off-the-shelf program too rigid for their tastes.

For those users, there's yet another option: building your own. Luckily, that doesn't mean writing software from scratch, but rather buying and customizing a general-purpose database, or in computerse, a database management system (DBMS). Like the latest contact managers and PIMs, DBMSs -- which have been around even longer -- have also gotten more affordable and easier to use. Many are marketed with the boast that "no previous programming skill is required."

The first step to developing any contact management system, says Douglas Cohn, president of New York consultancy DAC Computer Services, is to understand your own work procedures. Start with a clear idea of what kind of data is needed at each point in a given process -- turning a lead into a sale, for example, or responding to a customer complaint. That should help you assess whether you need the highly customizable, but more user-demanding, database program.

Denon & Doyle Disc Jockey, a Concord (Calif.) DJ service, didn't rely on professional programmers to build its contact management system. Before it installed computers, the 13-year-old company used three-ring binders to store song lists -- which often numbered thousands of titles. In binders, the lists were often lost or damaged, and they quickly grew obsolete, recalls office manager Janine Lunghi.

About five years ago, Denon & Doyle added Claris's FileMaker Pro to its Apple Macintosh office network. (Claris's DBMS is also available in a Windows version; see accompanying table for details.) Less than a month later, Lunghi and her colleagues had a working contact management system. "We did it all ourselves," she reports.

Denon & Doyle's self-developed contact management system is used to track all inquiries from prospective clients, store information on reception halls, and produce direct-mail pieces that typically go out to 500 addresses at a time. The company's largest database -- its master library of over 10,000 available songs -- is a valuable marketing tool. Using a number of different search methods, account reps can find a given tune in a matter of seconds. And that helps win new clients. "People are impressed," Lunghi adds.

Others have developed their own idiosyncratic contact management systems, usually by marrying a DBMS to a popular office productivity suite. Some link the friendly interface of a PIM, such as Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Organizer, with the searching and sorting features of such sister DBMS programs as Microsoft Access and Lotus Approach.

For his part, Cohn advises against developing a contact management system from scratch. Though DBMSs are easier to use than ever, off-the-shelf contact managers and PIMs have made even greater strides in the past few years and can be adapted to virtually any special need, he says. Anyone who feels compelled to build a contact manager from scratch with a DBMS "doesn't know the [capabilities of] the products today."

Bottom line: If you crave the extreme flexibility or intellectual challenge in building your own contact system, a DBMS might be right for you. But most small businesses will find software designed by the pros will work just fine.

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Updated Dec. 11, 1997 by bwwebmaster
Copyright 1997, Bloomberg L.P.
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