From the February 1997 issue of Startups

Technological tools to help you make the most of the business cards you gather

Networking is an important tool for any successful business. Participating in a trade show or attending a networking group are great ways for a small business to make contact with prospective customers. However, just shaking hands and collecting business cards is not enough. If you do not follow up in a timely fashion, the contacts you make may forget you. How can you make the most of the business cards you collect while networking?

By automating as much of the process as possible--using an electronic business-card reader and contact-management software.

The task of producing a punctual follow-up response for possibly hundreds of business cards can be overwhelming. Entering data for each business card carries a high probability of human error and is, of course, time-consuming--and the letters must still be printed, and the envelopes addressed. You can save time and eliminate human error by using a business-card reader to scan the information from your contacts' cards into your computer, and a contact manager to put that information to good use.

Peg Ostby of Sterling Heights, Michigan, an independent distributor of Enrich International, an herbal-nutrition network-marketing company, knows the value of automating her trade-show follow-up duties. In June of 1996 she participated, with several other Enrich salespeople, in an exhibit that was part of a motivational-speaker presentation. The group accumulated more than 200 business cards that needed to be sorted and distributed among themselves. Ostby volunteered to enter them into her computer, having already used GoldMine Software Corporation's contact-management program, GoldMine, for three years. She designed a customized information field and a code to indicate contacts gathered at that particular presentation, and was therefore able to sort the new contacts from others already in her contact-management system.

Once she had typed up and sorted the contacts in Goldmine, she printed labels and delivered them to the other salespeople in the group. To create a follow-up mailing for herself, she then "merged" her contacts' names and addresses with a postcard template she had already designed in a desktop publishing program (printing both the document and the contact's name and address through the computer simultaneously), and was able to go from trade show to post office in only three days, thus contacting people before they forgot who she was!

Ostby also scheduled follow-up telephone calls through the use of Goldmine (which also dialed the telephone for her through the use of a modem). She estimates she experienced a 30 percent sales growth from those contacts after only one month. "There was no way I could have been as efficient without the program," says Ostby. "The computer handles all the details for me. In today's marketplace, if you are not on top of the details, you are not going to survive."


Freelancer Ellen DePasquale writes about small-business technology from her home office in New York City.

Automation Tools

While Ostby was remarkably efficient in her follow-up process, a business-card reader could have automated her procedure further. There are several business-card readers available. Smaller than an average telephone, these units scan business cards, entering the data into an address-book software program included with the reader.

Basically, the process involves scanning the business cards through the reader's specially-sized slot (oversized cards may be problematic); the data scanned is broken down into the appropriate information fields of the address-book program (which typically comes with the business-card reader), and displayed on-screen. After double-checking that the information is correct, you can transfer the data to the contact manager. Finally, you then merge the data with the document you wish to produce.

A contact-management program, another time-saving tool which can be used in conjunction with a business-card reader, is essentially an address book which allows you to manage your contact information through the use of personal notes, scheduling calendars, contact records, and time-management features.

To follow up on contacts, you will only need to use a small percentage of the contact-management features, such as categorizing, sorting and merging the contact's names and addresses with letters, postcards and envelopes. After you have mailed your follow-up paperwork, you can also use the contact manager to log the responses and schedule follow-up telephone calls.

Scanning the Data

For comparison purposes, three business-card readers were tested for this article (using 20 different business cards): Corex Technologies Corporation's CardScan, Seiko Instruments USA Inc.'s Smart Business Card Reader (both for IBM compatibles), and Umax Technologies Inc.'s BizCard Reader (for Macintosh). Each was easy to install and use, but each program's ability to decipher the information on the business cards varied greatly. All three units did well with glossy cards and colored inks, but large logos or typefaces that placed the letters close together resulted in a number of scanning errors.

Although card readers do save data-entry time, double-checking the scanned information against the actual card is still labor-intensive. All the card readers display an on-screen image of the card for reference.

The basic information fields included in all the card readers' address-book software consist of the following: company name, contact person's name and title, address, telephone number and fax number. There are also several category fields (to identify the event where you met the contact, for example), and several user-defined fields (where you can decide the type of data you want to enter).

The Corex CardScan did the best job of reading the information from the cards and entering it into the appropriate fields. It did well with e-mail addresses (a field not featured in all models) and recognizing information even when the card was fed in upside down. It was also the only card reader able to handle international addresses--placing them in the "Notes" fields--whereas the others merely ignored that information.

The feature that set it apart from the other two card readers was its ability to continuously scan a number of cards. The other card readers stopped after each card was entered to display the results of the scan. (Although each card scanned should be double-checked, it is more time-efficient to scan a group of them and then go back to check them all at once.)

The Seiko Smart Business Card Reader did well with most of the business cards. It has a field for e-mail addresses and puts additional information, such as a second phone number or company tag line, in the "Notes" field. It also read the upside-down cards correctly.

The Umax Biz Card Reader did not do well reading e-mail addresses, international addresses, or cards that were fed into the scanner upside down, resulting in the need for extensive editing. One feature (exclusive to this model) that made editing easier, however, was a spreadsheet format that allows the user to view and edit the cards; instead of having to view each card separately, editing can be done quickly across rows and down columns.

Transferring the Data

The easiest way to transfer your data from the business-card-reader software to a contact-management program is through a direct link between the two, enabling the contact-management software to read the data in the business-card-reader software without any interaction from the user.

The Seiko Smart Business Card Reader allows you to export to formats specifically understood by Goldmine, Maximizer Technologies' Maximizer, NetManage's ECCO, Commence Corporation's Commence, and several other well-known contact managers. The Corex Card-Scan offers easy export to Maximizer, Odyssey Computing Inc.'s On-Schedule, ECCO Pro, Commence and others. The UMAX Biz Card Reader is the most limited, with export formats for only Macintosh-based contact managers, such as Now Software's Touchbase Pro.

All three business-card readers featured here also offer a direct transfer to various versions of Symantec Corporation's Act!, one of the most popular contact-management programs on the market today.

If your combination of business-card reader and contact manager does not provide a direct link for easy transfers, then you will have to export the data from the business-card-reader software and import it to the contact manager, which can be tricky. There are two universal formats: "comma delimited" (where each information field is separated by a comma), and "tab delimited" (where each information field is separated by a tab). However, be prepared for a complicated import process that requires you to match the exported fields to the fields in the contact manager. If not done right, you could be facing such problems as having your contact's name wind up in the address field and vice versa.

Merging Your Contacts

Once you have all your business-card data successfully transferred to your contact manager, you can sort it by category or group. You can also merge your contact information directly with the document you wish to distribute.

Each contact manager offers a "Merge" feature, but they do not all work the same way. Several of the contact managers we tested (On-Schedule for Windows, ACT! and Maximizer) have an integrated word processor. This means that you can produce your follow-up letters, and any other correspondence documents, from within the contact-management program.

Contact managers GoldMine and TeleMagic (from TeleMagic Inc.) both offer links to Microsoft Word for Windows, but TeleMagic also links to the word-processing programs Lotus Ami Pro for Windows and Corel's WordPerfect for Windows. These links allow documents to be produced in a word processor. It is a fairly painless setup to establish these links.

ACT!, Maximizer and Tele-Magic enable you to print mailing labels and envelopes from within their programs. This feature is not found in On-Schedule, but is available in most word processors.

If all this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is--but think of how much time you'll save in the long run. Networking is not easy, especially if you have a large number of new contacts to manage. However, if you were to try to produce follow-up materials manually, it would take you much more time and would be more difficult. As Ostby says, let your computer do the legwork, so you can concentrate on your own work.

For More Information

Get in touch with these companies for further information about their contact-management products:

Corex Technologies Corp., 130 Prospect St., Cambridge, MA 02139, (617) 492-4200

Seiko Instruments USA Inc., 1130 Ringwood Ct., San Jose, CA 95131, (408) 922-5800

Umax Technologies Inc., 3353 Gateway Blvd., Fremont, CA 94538, (510) 651-8883

Symantec Corp., 10201 Torre Ave., Cupertino, CA 65014-2132, (408) 253-9600

GoldMine Software Corp., 17383 Sunset Blvd. # 301, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, (800) 654-3561

Maximizer Technologies Inc., 1090 W. Pender St., 9th Floor, Vancouver, B.C. V6E 2N7, (604) 501-8000

TeleMagic Inc., 17950 Preston Rd., # 800, Dallas, TX 75252, (800) 835-6244

Odyssey Computing Inc., 16981 Via Tazon, Ste. D, San Diego, CA 92127, (619) 675-3775

Contact Source

Peg Ostby, (810) 979-1279.