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Office Live Small Business goes a la carte

Office Live Small Business goes a la carte

The new version of Microsoft's small business Web services bundle offers new and mostly free features.

E-mail included

Of course, what's a Web site without a way for visitors to contact you? You can create and associate up to 100 e-mail addresses with your MOLSB account, each with 5GB of storage. (In testing, the accounts were assigned to the Officelivebeta.com domain.) If you sign up for your own domain, the 100 e-mail accounts will use the domain you've chosen. As the mail administrator, I found it easy to change passwords (to prevent departing employees from accessing their mail, for example) so I could still keep their messages or delete accounts outright.

As with all the services branded with Microsoft's Live moniker, things can get confusing. For example, the distinction between e-mail addresses assigned to an MOLSB account and the MOLSB user assigned to your account can get a bit complicated. You can define up to five users -- all of whom must have Microsoft Passport accounts, such as Hotmail or Live.com accounts -- at no cost. These five users can log into your MOLSB account and use whatever features you've allowed, such as the Contact Manager.

Now let's say you've assigned those five accounts and now you want to set up an e-mail address called contactus@mycompany.com. You set up the e-mail address from within MOLSB, after which you can view messages to contactus@mycompany.com through the Windows Live Mail service or MOLSB interface, whichever you prefer. If you access e-mail messages through MOLSB, you'll actually be taken to the Windows Live Mail service anyway.

So far, so good. The problem is, once you log on to get mail to that account by using MOLSB, you'll find menu options within the MOLSB interface for features such as Contact Manager that are only available to the five users defined for the account. Since "contactus" is only an e-mail account assigned to the MOLSB account -- and not one of the five free users assigned to the account -- it doesn't actually have access to Contact Manager.

Thus, if you log on to get "contactus'" e-mail, you may think you can open Contact Manager, but if you click on that menu option, you'll get an error message. I'd much prefer the service include only links to services a user or e-mail account is entitled to work with.

Web-building and e-mail administration aren't all you can do with MOLSB, of course. Managing customer data is a key task of any small business, and that's where Contact Manager comes in. It's an easy-to-use, no-frills customer relationship management application that is suitable for tracking basic customer information.

Is it a full-fledged customer tracking system? By no means. But it's a great deal better than nothing. I've worked with small businesses where each salesperson kept individual client lists, which was a nightmare for the business owner or sales manager. By having the information online and accessible to your entire team from just about anywhere, your salespeople can share the most current data at all times.

Contact Manager has lots of fields, but it lacks flexibility. I couldn't add a new field, for example, to keep track of information specific to my business -- there isn't even a free-form comment text field.

On the plus side, if you have a sales team, you may be interested in the Opportunities feature: Enter an opportunity, then assign it to a company or an individual (either customers or members of your own staff, depending on how you use them). There is also a Products list which provides a central place to organize product information (descriptions, prices and markups, and a primitive inventory count).

You can export Contact Manager data to a spreadsheet, or edit entries in grid mode and make the contacts available offline via Outlook 2003 or 2007.


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