How does a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) package that’s already installed on every computer in your office and every member of staff uses dozens of times every day sound? Pretty great probably. Two of the big stumbling blocks to adopting CRM in small businesses – cost and complexity – are killed off just like that. But can Outlook do an effective job for you?

Of course, you need to do more than just send and receive messages to get the most from Outlook as a CRM tool, but Microsoft’s email programme has potential in this area. You’ll need to get on top of the calendar, journal and contact managers, notes and task management. Using Microsoft Exchange Server and SharePoint Server can make it a shared, multi-user experience (this is more integrated in the latest versions of Office 365). Outlook even keeps a record of every conversation you have with each contact.

So, Outlook certainly has CRM potential. In addition, there are a number of add on programmes that can add extra CRM functionality to Outlook for much less than a full CRM solution would cost. Microsoft also sell Business Contact Manager for Outlook which claims to turn it into a much more effective CRM tool.

However, a fully functioning CRM will do so much more. One of the first things it will do is manage your email messages – often through Outlook. It will also control your contacts and – as many experts are keen to point out – Outlook doesn’t yet allow you to link documents to a particular contact.

It’s this sort of functionality that a fully-fledged CRM system will have. It will almost certainly be more sophisticated than Outlook, more networked and more likely to link different parts of your organisation.

However, if you are a small business with a small IT system – Outlook needs extra software to work in this way on a network – then Outlook can certainly do a job for you (let’s not forget that Microsoft also have their own CRM package). As we’ve mentioned, two of the problems many businesses find with CRM systems are their complexity and the difficulty in getting staff to successfully engage with them.

As you consider CRM and think about trying out some trial versions, perhaps it would be worthwhile to do the small amount of research necessary to give Outlook the chance to perform to its fullest capabilities.