Contact management is rarely regarded as a crucial contributor to the success or failure of an enterprise. Fact is, sound contact management forms the foundation that efficient project and task management practices are built upon, and can have far-reaching effects for any organization.
My (mis)adventure with contact management
Remember the good old days of college festivals? What a welcome break they were from the academic grind!
For most students, college festivals would be synonymous with fun and excitement – a chance to compete against one’s peers, interact with bigwigs from the industry, and be a part of some entertaining extra-curricular activities.
But ask anyone who’s been on the organizing committee for one of these fests, and you’ll hear a whole other story.
I was cultural secretary back in my B-school days, and remember vividly the blood, sweat, and tears that went into organizing the event.
The two-day affair was jam-packed with a range of academic and cultural activities, and it took a LOT of hard work, planning, and scheduling to pull it all off.
Personally though, I felt that the trickiest aspect of organizing the festival was working and liaising with the many different people who were involved. Here’s a list of some of them:
· Student volunteers
· Advisory committee of professors
· Invitees – Colleges and universities from across the country, as well as dignitaries, such as chief guests, judges, speakers, and panelists
· Vendors – For lighting, sound systems, printing posters and banners, catering, and web development, among others
· Music artists/bands
· Travel and stay –Hotels to put up guest performers and dignitaries, and a taxi service for pickups and drops
It would have been impossible for the core team to manage everything, so smaller teams were set up and made responsible for specific tasks, such as sponsorships, publicity and advertising, and so forth. Almost the entire student body was involved in some capacity or the other.
The core team would communicate with all the teams, but effectively, everyone was working in silos. Conceivably, this lead to a certain degree of chaos. Here are a few examples:
· Even for us members of the core committee, it was often very difficult to identify which individual was working on what. Time would be wasted trying to track down concerned people.
· On account of poor coordination, some invitees ended up receiving multiple emails and calls, others received calls but no follow-up emails, and, in an embarrassing turn of events, some got missed out entirely.
· Some of the biggest issues occurred during the actual fest itself. Any event of this scale requires a lot of firefighting. In our case, among other hiccups, the lighting guy didn’t show up on time and pickups and drops for some of the guests were messed up. Precious time was wasted tracking down the individuals responsible for liaising with the event management and taxi vendors before the problems could be fixed.
What could have been done differently
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. When I look back now, it seems obvious that all these problems could have been averted had we employed some kind of system to manage our teams and liaising activities. In other words, a sturdy contact management system could have really helped save the day:
· A good contact manager would have served as an organizational chart, indicating very clearly which member of the organizing committee was responsible for what task and how to reach them.
· It would have allowed us to build an exhaustive list of invitees, and add notes against each indicating which ones had been contacted and in what manner. The same could have been used to manage sponsors.
· It would also have served as a repository for vendor details. So, when the lighting guy didn’t show up on time to set up for the concert, there would have been no need to run around to get a hold of the relevant committee member. One would just simply refer to the contact list and get in touch with the vendor directly.
· Effectively, a contact management system would have aided coordination among the entire organizing team, and boosted our overall productivity.
Real world contact management challenges
Consider now that this was a college-level event where the stakes were not excessively high. In the real world, on the other hand, the absence of an efficient contact manager can have cascading ramifications. Just picture the problems that could arise in the following cases:
· Large infrastructure and development projects, which require several different corporates, consultants, and government bodies to work together.
· Big events such as trade shows or business expos, which need a coordinated effort from event managers, sponsors, and a range of different organizations.
· Smaller companies, where members of different verticals, along with freelancers and remote teams, come together to work on projects.
In all of these cases, the absence of a shared contact manager is bound to result in poor project management, and productivity is sure to take a hit.
Contact management “systems” in use today
Still, in most organizations, setting up a contact management system is a low-priority task. A lot of teams, even today, rely on Google Contacts and instant messaging tools such as WhatsApp for this purpose.
However, WhatsApp is just a way to share vCards, while Google Contacts has no provision for sharing contact data at all. Neither application allows the user to make elaborate, shareable lists, complete with notes and remarks.
Some organizations prefer using Excel or Google Spreadsheets for the purpose. Others like to use dedicated business tools such as Trello. Although these applications allow you to create detailed contact lists, they have their own limits in terms of access controls and shareability.
In both Google Spreadsheets and Trello, you can share your contact list with as many collaborators as you like. You even have full leeway to decide which users get admin access and which remain read-only members. However, they only allow for access controls at the macro level. What if I want to give a collaborator access to my contact list but, at the same time, keep certain contact information (say, my personal notes for each contact) hidden from his/her view? Neither Google spreadsheets nor Trello allows me to do this.
Key features to look for
So, what exactly goes into setting up an efficient contact management system? In my opinion, the following features are must-haves:
1. It’s a waste of resources if every member of the organization has to build and update his/her own personal contact list. Inconsistencies and errors are bound to creep in in such a scenario. It is best if one, unified, updated “master” contact list is shared among the entire team. So, my first must-have feature for contact managers is shareability.
2. The “master” contact list should remain sacrosanct. Only authorized members should be able to go into the data and make changes. For this purpose, it is essential that you have complete control over usage rights, so that you can choose for every member whether they have read-only or admin access.
3. When an organization works with freelancers, they need to be able to access contact information for the team members that they are collaborating with. But there is no reason to share with them other sensitive information, such as about your clients or leads. To provide for this and other sticky situations, a good contact management system should allow you complete access control, so that you, as admin, can decide who gets to see what contact data.
4. Above everything else, your contact management system should be a powerful, dynamic tool that allows you to capture whatever range and depth of contact data is relevant to you. In addition to names, phone numbers, and email addresses, say you want to upload photographs and IDs for every contact. You contact manager should let you upload these and any other kinds of files or documents you like.
What contact management applications have worked for you? Let me know in the comments section. As for me, the only contact manager I find meets all my needs is Orgzit. Check it out for yourself to see why I’m such a fan.