An old workhorse gets a well-deserved makeover.

    Most financial advisors are familiar with MS Outlook, the personal information manager (PIM) that comes packaged most versions of MS Office. Outlook can perform a wide variety of functions, but it is most widely used to send and receive e-mail, store contact information, maintain a calendar and to track to-do's.
    MS Outlook does not pack the power or workflow capabilities of more powerful generic CRM packages such as ACT!, Goldmine, Salesforce or SalesLogix, nor does it offer the industry-specific fields and tools of CRM tools targeted specifically at advisors; however, the application remains extremely popular. According to Microsoft, more than 450 million people worldwide use Microsoft Office. It is a fair bet that at least half of those folks are using Outlook as their PIM.
While the Outlook 2007 interface has not been radically altered, as have other MS Office applications, there are plenty of new features and discontinued features to familiarize yourself with.
    MS Outlook 2007 offers numerous improvements. Those of interest to most advisors improve your ability to do one of the following: find the information you need, prioritize your work, connect/collaborate or work safely.

Finding Information
    Outlook has always offered a built-in search feature. Unfortunately, in previous versions searching has been painfully slow. It is not uncommon for those with a large Outlook file to wait five minutes or more for a search in earlier versions of Outlook to run its course. As a result, many people turned to third-party search tools such as those offered by Copernic, Google and Yahoo to find things within Outlook.
    Microsoft finally took the hint and did something about Outlook's useless search engine. In Outlook 2007, there is an "Instant Search Pane" near the top of the information pane viewer. The minute you begin typing letters into the search box, Outlook, almost immediately, starts narrowing down your search. Type mo, and only words or names containing the text you typed are displayed. As you continue to type letters, the search is further narrowed. If the basic search does not yield the results you require, you can use the query builder to further refine your search.

The new search feature is powered by the search capabilities built into Microsoft VISTA, Microsoft's new operating system. You want to buy Outlook 2007 but are not ready to upgrade to VISTA? No problem. As an alternative, Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 advisors can download the Windows Desktop Search. This tool integrates with Outlook 2007 and acts as a substitute for the VISTA search tool.

Outlook has offered the ability to categorize things for a long time, but with the possible exception of categorizing contacts, this feature has not been widely used. That should change with the advent of new color categories. Color categories offer a quick, easy way to visually distinguish items, making them easier to locate. For example, let's say that you want to color code all e-mail, calendar items, tasks and contacts relating to your top ten clients. With color categories, you can easily assign a unique color to everything relating to a top client. Locating information related to that client becomes easier. Color categories are also great for managing projects. Putting on a seminar or a conference? Just code everything related to the event in a unique color.
    Advisors can now preview attachments in the reading pane without opening them. This is a huge time-saver, but it has some limitations. It only supports plain text and HTML, not Rich Text. The Microsoft-supplied attachment viewer only supports MS Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Visio) image and text files, although third parties may offer additional capabilities. In addition, you can view only received messages, not those that you have composed.

The navigation pane, located on the left by default, and the new to-do bar on the right can both be minimized by clicking the little double arrows at the top of the bars. You can toggle them open by clicking on the arrows again. The idea is to provide a much larger main work area when you are viewing your contacts, calendar or e-mail, so that you can view the information you need. If you need to view the navigation pane or the to-do bar, they are only a mouse click away.

Prioritizing Your Work

To help you prioritize better, Microsoft created the To-Do Bar. This is your one stop shop for tasks, e-mail flagged for follow-up and appointments. In addition, this bar can incorporate tasks from MS OneNote 2007, MS Project 2007 and SharePoint Services 3.0 Web sites. It truly offers a consolidated view of your daily priorities.
    Tasks are now better integrated with the calendar. You can drag a task onto the calendar so that a time is assigned to do it. This also provides a permanent record of when the task was done.

The usefulness of flags has been expanded. Now, flags can be linked to a date. You can flag something for today, tomorrow, this week, next week, no date or a custom date. You can flag a message to a recipient reminding them to send you a file by a certain date. At the same time, you can flag that message for yourself so you remember to follow up if you do not receive the required response. For example, if you send an IRA distribution form to a client, you can simultaneously set a due date for them and remind yourself to follow up if the form has not been received on time. If you flag and save messages you send, you can later click on them and search for related replies.
    For those working within larger organizations, Outlook integrates with SharePoint Services 3.0, so that all of one's information can be viewed from a single location. Small firms can rent SharePoint sites on a monthly basis from third-party providers.

Connecting And Collaborating

Outlook 2007 supports much greater connectivity and collaboration than did previous versions. With Outlook 2007, you can take an HTML "snapshot" of your calendar and share it with others. You can now subscribe to both static and dynamic Internet calendars, and you can create your own Internet calendars to share with others. Scheduling with the calendar has been improved. You can view calendars side by side or you can overlay one calendar on another to identify free time on both your calendar and your colleague's.
    You now can create customized electronic business cards within Outlook, which can be shared with others as an attachment or as an electronic signature. In addition to customizing your contact information, you can add color logos and pictures to your cards. These cards can then be shared with others either. Recipient can then save your card in their contact folder.

Outlook Mobile Service allows you to send and receive text and picture messages between Office Outlook 2007 and any mobile phone. It also enables you to forward Outlook e-mail messages, contacts, appointments and tasks to yourself or other people as text messages. With this functionality you can automatically send e-mail messages, reminders and your daily calendar as text messages directly to your phone.

Really Simple Syndication (RSS) Feeds can be subscribed to and received from within Outlook, a great convenience for those who spend a good portion of their day working within Outlook.

Working Safely
    Microsoft has added some additional security features, many of them targeted at corporate users. In conjunction with the junk e-mail filter, which was introduced in Outlook 2003, the 2007 version now offers anti-phishing protection. It attempts to identify and disable malicious content and links within an e-mail message.
    Outlook 2007 offers a new technology called Outlook E-mail Postmarking, which is turned on by default. The idea is that each outgoing e-mail receives a "postmark" that consists of unique information, such as the characteristics of the message and the recipients. An application receiving an e-mail that supports this technology recognizes the postmark and determines that the message is probably not spam.

There is no direct cost to use the postmark, but there is an indirect cost: the time and computational power it takes to construct the postmark. For the average user, the postmarking process goes unnoticed, but for a spammer, who is sending tens of thousands of messages, the burden is substantial. In order to send postmarked e-mail, their costs would have to rise substantially. This technology is not going to end spam, but it may have some impact over time.
    For those using Outlook in conjunction with Exchange Server 2007, Managed E-mail Folders allow companies to enforce e-mail storage and retention policies. Outlook 2007 allows you to save and archive e-mail messages in a Windows SharePoint Services 3.0 document library. Outlook 2007 provides you with access to a SharePoint Services 3.0 document library. If your firm uses SharePoint document library folders along with your mail folders, can both be used seamlessly. Folders in the library can be made publicly accessible to other people, and they are optimized for long-term archival and compliance purposes.

Removed Features
    In previous versions of Outlook, users had the option of using either the text editor included with Outlook or MS Word to compose e-mail messages. The Outlook text editor has been eliminated in the 2007 version. While Word clearly is the more capable and feature-filled application, some users preferred the built-in text editor. There are a number of reasons why someone might prefer the text editor. One is its simplicity. A second is universality. Some e-mail programs cannot decipher all of Word's formatting and graphics, so to avoid compatibility problems plain text is the best means of communications. Those who prefer to use plain text e-mail messages can limit Word to plain text.