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The venerable Act! contact manager has evolved into a full-featured CRM that also includes optional digital marketing features. However, its convoluted UI may prove troublesome to anyone who hasn’t previously used Act! products.
The Act! brand hails from a time before customer relationship management (CRM) was a real category, back when it was one of the more sophisticated contact managers available. Although the Act! software evolved into a cloud app with a browser-based front end, its UI remains stuck deep in the past. Act!’s integrated email marketing features might have what your small-to-midsize business needs to contact customers, but if you’re willing to endure its steep UI learning curve, you may as well check out Zoho CRM, our Editors’ Choice pick for CRM that offers a deeper feature set and a more intuitive design at a similar price.
Getting Started With Act!’s Clunky UI
As mentioned, Act!’s interface is a little old school, and you’ll see that right from the start. The main landing page has a left-hand nav like many modern systems, but there’s also an Act! CRM Classic button right next to it that drops the left-hand column and lets you focus on the top nav instead, as you would with a desktop app.
Things get more retro as you go along. When we imported a CSV file containing our 50 test contacts, the import operation actually kicked off a dialog box-style wizard that looks exactly like what you’d get installing an older Windows application. This might sound cute and eclectic, but you’ll bump into a bunch of these while using Act!, and they quickly get annoying.
The problem is that these dialogs don’t behave like typical web pop-ups, which either show the whole graphic in the box or at least put scroll bars in the frame so you can move around. Act! does neither. It always showed only a part of the dialog box, and usually not the part with the buttons we needed. That meant we had to manually resize the window until the buttons appeared. Frustrating.
Another example of Act!’s counterintuitive UI is that the contact importing process kicks off from either a graphic on the Welcome screen or the top nav’s Tool menu. There’s no one-button access from inside the Contacts page, something we enjoyed with several other recent CRMs we tested. This is fine once you get used to thinking like a desktop user again, but it’s easy to forget that the top nav is even an option. Another minor annoyance is that Act!’s Welcome page, which would imply it’ll be your main landing page, isn’t really a welcome page. Just like Onpipeline, Act! takes you to wherever you left off in the app whenever you log into it.
Worse, the contact importing process—the first action we tried—got off on the wrong foot. We started the import from the Welcome screen, which immediately popped up an “Import Wizard has been retired” article from the support knowledgebase. There was a how-to link in the article, but that only took us back to what looked like an import wizard. That was confusing, but at least the import seemed to work as advertised. Only it didn’t.
Even though the wizard stated that it had imported all 50 records, Act! wouldn’t display them. Only after digging around for a while did we figure out that the initial import didn’t work because we selected “Typical” instead of “Custom Field.” If you want to use Typical, you need to exactly match what the Act! database expects. Anything else is considered custom. Act! provides a CSV template that you can put your contacts into for Typical use, but it was disappointing to take this additional, manual step.
Contacts, Groups, and Opportunities
Once your contacts are imported, you’ll see them in the Contacts view. The list view is dense, but it displays most everything you need to know about a contact. Still, we wish Act! provided more than a list view. Zoho CRM has a Kanban view, for instance.\
Where your users may start complaining is when they get into Companies, Groups, and Opportunities. Setting up groups kicked off another wizard that had to be resized, then launched yet another dialog inside the first one that also had to be resized.
The Groups feature was easy to use, but a little strange. Clearly, it’s intended for salespeople to create customer, contact, and prospect groups. It’s also where you manage users, determining who has access to the database or who is a company employee. Those names are pulled from the contacts database, so apparently Contacts is where everything happens in Act!—customers, prospects, and users, too. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just unexpected.
Some groups are pre-populated if you added the right custom field to your import. We had one labeled “ID” that stated whether the contact was a customer, a prospect, or a hot lead. Both the default Customer and Prospect groups were pre-set with this field when we got back into Act! after the spreadsheet import. That’s a big step up from Onpipeline, where even a basic CSV import didn’t work at all.
Then again, when Onpipline added a contact with an Organization field, like “Company,” it automatically created the corresponding Organization or Company entry. Act! doesn’t, and this, too, quickly gets old.
To create a Company record, we had to import the contact data (which included most of the company data), then go into the Companies tab, manually create the company contact, and then add the contact to the company record there. However, when we went back into the Contacts view and selected the contact we’d just added to the Company record, there still was no link back to the Company record. We had to go into the contact’s details in the Contact view and match the two there.
Considering that most CRM projects fail because salespeople complain that the software is too cumbersome to use, Act! should streamline this part of the app. Everything starts with the contact in Act!, so building your opportunities means you must have the contact-to-company relationship built before you start, in most cases.
Once you’ve done that, though, building an opportunity is fairly easy. The fields are self-explanatory for the most part, though you’ll definitely want to map them to your business before starting. Act! makes you fill out a set of Products/Services fields that include the name of the product, a reference number, and associated costs and pricing. You can fill these in ad hoc, as we did for testing, but in the real world, you’ll want to have your products or services, their ID numbers, and any associated costs already configured in Act!. Otherwise, you risk dealing with a lot of bad data entry.
Another part of building the opportunity is placing it in the right pipeline stage. You can customize the stages in your pipeline, though Act! has a decent-enough set of default stages. There’s also an Act! Sales Cycle field that lets you switch between pipelines if you’ve created more than one. Once your opportunity is fully filled out, you can see it as part of either a list view or inside its pipeline along with your other deals. The latter is probably how most salespeople will view them.
This pipeline view is one screen where Act! finally leverages its web UI. The graphics are clear, and you can move a deal from one stage to another simply by dragging the card to the new column. The opportunity’s detail record automatically update. This resembles what we saw in Insightly and Salesflare, so it’s not exactly mind-blowing. Still, after wrestling with the rest of Act!’s interface, this was a breath of fresh air. Next to Act!’s Insight tab, this was definitely our favorite view in the whole app, which is significant because it’s one where salespeople will spend a lot of their time.
Email, Calendar, and Tasks
Next to tracking deals and prospects, organizing your interactions is probably a CRM’s most important function. That means being able to send emails to contacts directly from the CRM, scheduling meetings or marketing events, and assigning yourself or team members any tasks that need to get done to move a deal forward. Act! can handle all of that, but it still had a surprise or two for us.
If you’re willing to go barebones, you can kick off an email without any tweaking just by clicking the email button while you’re in a Contact record. The browser opens your default email client with the contact in the To field. Unfortunately, this method doesn’t let you track or customize the email. To do that, you’ll need to navigate to Tools, and then click either the Google or Outlook synchronization options.
Unfortunately, that’s where things get antiquated again. To integrate with Outlook, Act! required us to download an integration installer, something that no other competitor we tested asked us to do. Worse, the installer installed the x86 Microsoft Visual C++ 2008 SP1 package as part of the operation. Although this might be acceptable for some people, many businesses opt for SaaS services specifically because they leave the local machine alone, reducing the chance of introducing security vulnerabilities.
Worse yet, Act! modifies your Outlook client as part of its integration. The integration adds an Act! entry in Outlook’s top nav bar. You perform Act!’s email operations from there, not in Act!. This type of add-in is yet another way your PC could potentially become vulnerable to network-based attacks, if it ever turns out to contain bugs or security flaws. We’d have definitely preferred it if the cloud-based version of Act! had left our desktop system alone.
To be clear, Insightly and Zoho CRM make email synchronization a quick, step-by-step process. Once it’s done, you can manage sales email from inside the sales app: the CRM. Bridging two apps for something as basic as email is another issue that Act! should address.
Once your email is synced, your Outlook calendar syncs, too. But you don’t necessarily have to use Outlook; Act! has an adequate in-app calendar that you can use without integration. You can add tasks directly using the Tasks tab, and associate them to contacts or deals. You can also assign them from the Opportunities page, but you can’t assign them from the Contacts or Companies pages.
A related page is the History List. You might think this is an activities tracker, but it’s actually just a database dump of everything your account has done to the instance. So, if you build a custom field, modify a record, associate two records, or perform any other operation, the History List includes it all in a visually dense index. Fortunately, you can filter specific operations, such as email activity or opportunity history. That makes the History List easier to utilize, but other viewing options would be greatly appreciated.
Reporting, Act! Insights, and Custom Views
Act!’s reporting is par for the course. It offers 30 prebuilt report templates, and while they aren’t as attractive as some competitors’ reports, you can edit them. Visiting the Reports tab lets you run a report with a single click (and you can save your favorite reports to the top of the screen). On the downside, you can’t build an entirely new report without talking to Act!’s customer support team.
Editing Act! reports is no great shakes, either. You can grab any report’s template and edit it, but those choices are about the data you want in the report, not how the report looks.
Custom Views are available from the Tools menu. Here you can select Design Layouts to bring up an easy-to-use visual designer to customize your Contact, Group, Company, or Opportunity screens. Unfortunately, unlike Zoho CRM’s Canvas feature, Design Layouts isn’t about redesigning the look, feel, or navigation. Much like the report editor mentioned above, you can only change which fields you’re going to use and where they’ll show up. To add a new field, start typing its name in the bottom half of the designer. If it’s in the database, Act! displays it. You can then position it where you want. For custom fields, you must first define those in the Custom Tables menu.
Neither reports nor the Custom View builder do much from a graphical perspective. If that’s important to you, head on over to Act! Insight. What Act! ignores in pretty UI design everywhere else in the app, it makes up for here.
Insight includes a very slick custom dashboard creator. Everything is done using simple drop-down menus. You choose a 2D chart from a few options, and then position your chart anywhere on the Insight dashboard. It’s fast, and for individual salespeople it’s definitely a better day-to-day tracking option than running a report.
Act!’s Marketing Automation tab gives you access to email marketing technology that is fully baked into the Act! UI. It lets you configure digital marketing campaigns complete with email templates, autoresponders, mass per-month sending schedules, and a visual workflow designer to automate every step.
The designer is fairly easy to use. You start with a basic workflow depending on which marketing aspect you select (we chose email sending). When we clicked on our intro step, the builder let us select whether we wanted that action to contain specific content (like a certain template) or launch another action. Available actions include managing subscribers, kicking off a different email, or recording the campaign’s email statistics. You’ll probably need to watch a training video to get started with this, but it’s a surprisingly easy lift compared to the rest of Act!.
How to Buy Act!
Sticking to its old-school theme, you can buy Act! in two different ways. It’s available either for on-premises installation or as a cloud service. We tested the cloud service, which comes in two pricing tiers.
First is Standard, which costs $30 per user per month if billed annually. That includes all the standard functionality we’ve mentioned, but without much of the customization. This means you’re stuck using the default queries, dashboards, and reports. Standard also provides 4GB of cloud storage space for attached documents. Access to the Marketing Automation features costs an additional $99 per user per month. If you opt for it, Standard lets you send 10,000 emails per month.
For customization, you’ll want the Expert tier (the version we tested), which costs $45 per user per month, billed annually. Aside from customization, this tier offers 6GB of cloud storage, priority support, and the ability to manage multiple pipelines. Marketing Automation is, again, an additional $99 per user per month, but the Expert iteration lets you send 25,000 emails per month.
By way of comparison, an on-premises Act! installation is a subscription-based charge rather than one-time fee. That starts at $37.50 per user per month, but can go as high as $149.25 per user per month, depending on how many advanced marketing automation and reporting features you select.