Managing business contacts

You probably have all the business contacts you need. The challenge is managing them.

Whatever your business, there are people you communicate with regularly. The most obvious will be customers or clients — people who pay money for your services or products. When you look for new sales or more work, these are the best starting place.

Knowing when or under what conditions you should rekindle an earlier contact could be the difference between a thriving business and one that struggles.

There are other key groups. Some almost as important as paying customers. A freelance journalist’s contact list is as important as a list of editors and publishers.

If you make or sell things, suppliers matter. You may need to stay in touch with subcontractors, trade associations and others who service your business needs.

In the old days, the best tools were card indexes. Bigger cards worked better. People could write notes on these cards each time they called a contact.

Cardfile and Windows Contacts

Early contact databases closely resembled their physical counterparts. You may remember the Cardfile program with earlier versions of Windows. We’ve moved on since then. Today’s tools are more advanced.

The closest modern application to Cardfile is the overlooked Windows Vista Contacts program. If you run Vista and you haven’t tried it yet, go to the start button and look for it under the All Programs menu. Another contact manager you may already own is in Microsoft Outlook.

There are plenty of alternative contact management tools, but strangely, there are few decent free online contact management applications.

Customer Relationship Management

Companies use more advanced contact applications allowing workers to share contact details. When combined with databases storing other information, possibly huge amounts of other information, they are known as Customer Relationship Management systems or CRM.

The same principles apply to all contact management tools. Choose whichever works for you.

Look for flexible solutions that integrate well with the other tools you use on an everyday basis.

First, above all else, use your contact software as much as you can. It sounds obvious. If you phone someone, keep his or her details open as you talk. Making the data available may help jog your memory about things. You may like to record details of the conversation for future reference. Log calls in the database. Use reminder functions to automatically let you know when you should call someone again. Enter appointments in your diary or calendar from the contact database.

Second, make sure your data is good. Scroll through your contact list regularly. Check details such as telephone numbers and email addresses are up-to-date. When you learn that information has changed, make updating your database a priority. If you suspect major contact details have changed, get in touch with the person. They may have moved jobs, this gives you a good opportunity to strike up a conversation.

Communications channels

Modern businesses use many communications channels, so use your contact manager to make sure you choose the best channel. For talking it could be mobile, landline telephone or Skype. They may prefer email, instant messaging or SMS messaging. Record people’s communications preferences in your contact database. Make sure you have all their telephone and fax numbers as well as email addresses and so on.

Third, organize your contacts. The better applications allow you to assign categories to contacts. Use as many of these as you can. So, when you need to send a circular letter to all the left-handed Tasmanian fishermen who have birthdays in November, compiling the mailing list is a cinch.

Forth, share your data with co-workers. This information is more valuable if more people have access to it. You can do this using a network, though that may not be necessary. Data sharing is not such a good idea if you are a commission-only sales representative in a competitive organization, but most modern companies are team-based. It looks bad if different people from the same organization make similar or conflicting calls to the same contacts. On the other hand, coordinating data wisely can make even the smallest firm look professional.

Used properly, your contact manager will return the investment in days. It’s one way small business can perform on a level field with larger operations.