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Clever ways to keep your contacts under control

Businessman face-down on messy desk

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In this four-part web strategy series, we'll look at smart and easy ways to organize your digital life

It's a law of nature: junk expands to fill the space available. And then it slops over in an attempt to bury us alive.

Technology is not immune to the disorder. Whether it's an inbox crammed with unread messages, a muddled filing system or a computer that's slowing by the day, electronic clutter can be every bit as big a productivity killer as its physical counterpart.

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First up, the contact database. Every business needs to keep track of its contacts, be they customers, suppliers, colleagues, competitors or prospects. And chances are that list is in a number of locations: stored in one or more databases or spreadsheets, written on scraps of paper, sticky notes and napkins, and on piles of business cards tucked into a bottom drawer.

If organizing contacts can save 10 minutes a day, says professional organizer Deanne Kelleher, owner of the Toronto-based kAos Group, a person can save 41 hours a year. That's over a week in lost productivity regained!

If we calculate what it might mean in dollars, consider the following scenarios:

If you make:

  • $25/hour, the 41 hours saved equals $1025
  • $50/hour, would equal $2050 or at
  • $100/hour, it would equal $4100.

That's a nice chunk of change.

But where to start? The first thing to do, says Ms. Kelleher, is to gather all of those bits and pieces into one place and pick one database to store them. It might be Microsoft Outlook, or Gmail, or a customer relationship management (CRM) program. Whichever you decide, it needs to be able to store not only basic contact information, but also different categories for each contact.

Those categories tell you what role or roles each contact has in your life. You may think you'll remember, but you won't over time. Categories also make it easy to search for groups of people such as suppliers or prospects.

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In addition to this list, she says, you may also have a mailing list for your corporate newsletter or marketing campaigns, and for that you also need to be sure you have each contact's permission.

"Every contact in the database is valuable," Ms. Kelleher says. "Businesses can die on a database alone."

Now comes the tedious part. Whether you do it yourself, or have an administration assistant or intern do the work, all of the non-electronic contacts have to be entered into your chosen database, and those already filed in other software have to be exported from their current homes and imported into the new database. Ms. Kelleher recommends software such as DYMO's CardScan to clients who are starting with mountains of business cards. It not only scans the cards, it interprets them and puts information into the correct fields in many contact management programs.

You don't have to do it all at once. Allocating even fifteen minutes per day will get the job done, as long as you don't let yourself get distracted. Ms. Kelleher recommends you keep a piece of paper beside the computer to make notes of action items that occur to you when you enter a name.

Tackling the project sporadically can lead to inconsistency, as can having multiple people enter information. To make sure the right data is entered into the right places every time, Ms. Kelleher suggests writing up a cheat sheet defining what information should be entered, and which fields it should land in, and giving it to anyone who may work on the database. She also recommends that everyone in the company use the same set of categories, and enter the same primary notes (when and where the initial contact was made, for example).

Another invaluable source of contacts to harvest can be found in our social networks. Dan Schawbel, Managing Partner of Millennial Branding, suggests, in his Mashable blog that there's another invaluable source of contacts to be that one should include contacts from Twitter, Facebook and Linked in that central contact database.

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The next task in the organization binge is to weed out duplicates. Some software will flag them for you automatically, and even merge the data, but sometimes it will come down to wading through the list by eye.

The good news is, once the database is whipped into shape, it's much easier to keep it in good condition. It just needs a system.

"When you don't have a strong system," says Ms. Kelleher, "getting organized is not as easy. People who call me have a deep sense of how to be organized, but things have gotten away from them. It's called life."

The system doesn't need to be complicated. When a new contact e-mails her, for example, Ms. Kelleher uses Microsoft Outlook's ability to create contact records from e-mails to add the person to her database, save the initial e-mail in that record (which also provides the date of first contact) and assigns categories. From there, she can create tasks for herself or others if follow-up is needed, enter further notes, and generally track interactions with the person.

When she meets someone at a networking event, she makes sure their contact entry includes the name and date of the event, which makes it much easier to retrieve when all you can remember is "that architect I met at the xyz meeting last month."

Above all, she says, "It's about creating a system that works for you."

Special to The Globe and Mail

The series on organizing your digital life continues next Thursday. Other Stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Your Business website.

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