A Good Outlook on Outlook

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The key to a well functioning practice is having software systems that are integrated for an efficient workflow process, according to M. Darren Root, president of Root Associates

And essential to that is having contact information that is up-to-date and easily accessible, along with efficient email communication and tasks and projects that are accurately stored in a calendar and having that data integrate with other software systems.

For Root, this means have the ability to make changes in Practice CS, the practice management system from Thomson Reuters, and having the data flow out via Outlook to staffers Blackberrys and other devices.

Partner Insights

"Our primary database is maintained in Practice CS and then integrates with all our other packages (which includes Outlook), says Root, whose Bloomington, Ind.-based firm employs 12 professionals serving about 1,000 clients.

Root, also the managing director of RootWorks, which provides consulting services to the accounting profession, has been using Thomson Reuter's Practice CS for the past three years. The practice management application was designed to have a familiar Outlook look and feel.

"I like the consistent look of Practice CS and Outlook, I think once you understand the layout of Practice CS you will find that the program is easy to use and efficient. I do think the consistent look and feel helps minimize the learning curve," says Root.

SMBs Can Profit from Outlookability

Large firms with robust ERP or CRM solutions aren't the only professionals who can bolster productivity through enhanced Outlook integration. As Intuit has recognized, small businesses using QuickBooks also stand to benefit.

"Small businesses have a real need for great communication tools and Outlook has been the standard communication tool in small business offices," says Samir Khosla, group product manager for QuickBooks. According to Khosla, roughly 70 percent of small businesses use Outlook or Outlook Express.

Intuit introduced in QuickBooks 2008 several new ways to help users track time and get paid.

With QuickBooks 2008, small businesses can transfer their billable time from Outlook calendar appointments, emails and tasks to the QuickBooks Time Tracker Service. This add-on service to QuickBooks ensures that billable hours are not lost.

A new invoicing feature allows services firms, such as accountants and consultants, to view all unbilled time and expenses directly from a single screen and create invoices with a single click. Users can also send invoices, sales receipts and other forms directly from QuickBooks using Outlook and Outlook Express.

QuickBooks 2008 also offers a new feature that lets users create, encrypt and securely transmit their accountant's copy file to a server for their accountant to download and review. This one-click process is designed to reduce the chances of losing the file, sending the wrong file to an accountant or having to look for other ways to send large files.

Several years ago, a contact sync tool was added, enabling users to download the synchronization tool into the Outlook toolbar. So, with the click of a button, they can sync contacts with QuickBooks.

Like Root, many professionals and software vendors have recognized the importance of having Outlook-friendly software. With Outlook's high rate of use among businesses, having software applications that mimic the look and feel of Outlook and better integrate with it is becoming increasingly vital.

According to CCH's most recently available research findings the penetration of Outlook within the accounting industry stood at 90 percent in 2006.

Because so many professionals use and are familiar with Outlook, CCH has developed ProSystem fx Document's email management functionality, which was enhanced in October.

"It is a natural extension of document management to have more extensive management of your emails," says Mark Ryburn, product manager for Workflow Solutions at CCH.

The latest version adds the ability to drag and drop email attachments from Outlook or desktop computer files directly into ProSystem fx Document, as well as to drag and drop files stored in ProSystem fx Document to a computer desktop. There are also enhanced search functions.

ProSystem fx Document's Client Navigation Pane provides an interface between the CCH product and Outlook, so users can move information between the two applications. In addition, users can now simultaneously view and access Outlook email and Document files using Document's new split-window view within Outlook.

The management functions ensure that emails are subject to firm-wide document storage and retention rules, providing risk mitigation and compliance with Sarbanes-Oxley and other regulatory requirements.

For its ProSystem fx Practice Management, CCH teamed up with VCM Software to introduce in July 2007 a workstation add-on dubbed CCH Coolbar. The Coolbar, a multi-function toolbar, links Outlook emails, appointments and tasks to clients, business affiliates, leads and referrals in the ProSystem fx Practice Management database. Users can also enter time, tasks and appointments from the Coolbar to their practice management timesheets.

One advantage of Coolbar is that users can access the ProSystem fx Practice Management database while staying within Outlook, says Annie Brown, who manages strategic partner relations for CCH. This functionality saves time and increases productivity.

A Family Resemblance

Thomson Reuters' Practice CS practice management application was similarly designed to have a familiar Outlook look and feel.

"We thought it would reduce the learning curve if it looked like Outlook," says Frank Swierz, senior director of software development for the Tax and Accounting Business at Thomson Reuters.

The application's Staff Dashboard is designed to work seamlessly with Outlook mail, calendar and tasks. With the Project Management module users can manage and track projects and tasks, and view Outlook appointments, Outlook tasks, projects, and project tasks in an Outlook-style calendar. The Client Management module enables users to synchronize with Outlook contact information in real time.

Practice CS now offers two-way integration. Previously, updates made in Practice CS would flow to Outlook but not vice versa.

"We have found the bi-directional functionality with Outlook to be helpful, when in the office we make all our demographic changes in Practice CS, which then syncs with Outlook, when out of the office we make changes on our Blackberrys, which then flows back via Exchange/Outlook to Practice CS," says Darren Root.

According to Root, Outlook is critical to the organization's operations.

"We never actually close Outlook, we leave it running all the time. We use Blackberry Enterprise Server, which allows MS Exchange/Outlook to push all of our email, calendaring and contacts out to our Blackberrys. Our IP Phone system is integrated with Outlook as well so we make calls from Outlook," says Root, who notes that he also likes the consistent look of Practice CS and Outlook.

Sage Software announced in August the availability of the new Act By Sage 2009 contact and customer management product family comprised by Act 2009, Act Premium 2009 and Act Premium for Web 2009.

According to Sage, the Act 2009 products focus on enhancing user productivity with improved Outlook integration, calendar and activity visibility, and database search capabilities.

New Act features include the ability to select multiple Outlook emails from different senders and attach them quickly to Act contacts, create Act activities within Outlook emails and the contact and regarding/subject line is pre-populated, copy an Act calendar to an Outlook calendar quickly from the main Act toolbar.

Beth Kohler, director of product management for Act, says that one of the main advantages of integrating with Outlook is that it is conducive to a workgroup environment where the sales team may be using Act products while the corporate executive team is operating with Outlook.

Sage also offers Act users a free Act Developer Network download for various functions such as displaying the Outlook Inbox in the Act dashboard.

Outlook integration is also prevalent within SageCRM, which offers complete, two-way integration with Outlook contacts, calendar and tasks. It also offers enhanced email integration so users can, for example send an email within SageCRM using Outlook and automatically have the email stored in the relevant customer contact history, including attachments.

The Microsoft Connection

A major initiative for Microsoft Dynamics has been to design its products to have the same look and feel and functionality as Outlook.

Not only does this greatly reduce the learning curve so firms can get up and running quickly but, because it is from Microsoft, it easily works with systems that companies likely have already implemented.

This has certainly helped drive Dynamics CRM sales and in the second half of 2009 the company is slated to release the newest version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM, which will have a significant number of new features that will integrate with Outlook, says Craig Dewar, director of Microsoft Dynamics Community Marketing. However, as of press time Dewar said it was too early to discuss additional details on the upcoming enhancements.

Meanwhile, the company recently launched the latest versions of Microsoft Dynamics AX and Microsoft Dynamics NAV, both of which have an Outlook look and feel.

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