I confess that I have and I feel no shame or guilt for having these bloody thoughts.

This last week I have been working through several hundred – actually nearly 4000 names and addresses on our database of contacts and customers. Well, I say working through them I actually mean attempting to sort, sift and filter the ones we want to mail from the ones that we don’t. Rather vital when we don’t want to send yet another newsletter to someone who has moved away, asked to be removed from our mailing list, or worse still has died. Nor do we want to dig up the corpses of rotten relationships the kind where customers think that they are ALWAYS right however unreasonably they behave. However it seems that computer programmes have a mind of their own and will only decide to do what you want them to do if and when they most feel like it.

As I said to someone when lamenting about my plight, I have been fantasizing about a large sword slicing through the synapses of the computer brain killing it DEAD DEAD DEAD in an attempt to put myself out of my misery of not being able to get it to work properly.
But the question arises – this technology is all very well but when it goes wrong….. it is an absolute nightmare. At the moment I feel conned having been led to believe that this fab piece of software programming will allow me to organize each and every contact in our address book so that I can communicate the right information to the right person every time. I have also been conned into believing that the tracking of the activities of each of these people would be easy too so that at a click of a button I will be able to see the full history of activity including the times when we have communicated with each other, what they have bought, when and how much they have spent, how they came to us, how they like to buy, what their personal preferences are and so on. Having this sort of filing system is vital in being able to understand your market and how to best make the sales using the shortest route possible. After all good business is all about EXCELLENT customer service.

We have always been led to believe that computer collated data is mathematically accurate and never wrong. Added to this the idiosyncrasies of computer programming – probably designed by geeks who don’t actually use these things – means that you can collect a great range of data but the system won’t allow you to use that information in the way that would actually prove most logical and sensible. Spending hours discovering that I can select some of the information by approaching it one way only to find that it won’t select other bits of information I needed made me doubt my own capabilities to understand what I was doing. I attempted to approach it from another angle. Great – I thought that I had cracked it – this must have been the way that I got it work the first time I used the programme. My attempts to print out a pile of neatly mail merged envelopes for my selected list of recipients started out well only to find that whilst I could select some of the information I wanted (not available via my first method) but I could not select the rest that was so readily available before. Arrrggghhhh! Never blame the tools they say! HAH!! I wish!
If you have ever tried to manually sort out a list of names and addresses of nearly four thousand people then you will know how impossible it is to work out who is a worth mailing and who isn’t. Who has bought what and when? Who wants to come to us in provincial South Wales and who will only go to an exhibition in Dubai? Which of the American ones actually come over here to the UK? And which will bother to come to us in Wales? Who are serious customers who have a genuine interest in our products and which ones actually just like to collect mail? Which are the best customers that deserve to have the extra special offers and which are the once-in-a-lifetime types who will never buy from us again. Collating this kind of information as you go along in such a way so that you can select a finely tuned list of people who are most interested in what you have to offer is absolutely vital. But what if your computer programme does not want to play ball?

The worst thing was that whilst the majority of the details were likely to be correct my trust in the results was seriously damaged. When you find the it seems to like certain names so much that it prints out at least five copies – you begin to seriously doubt the accuracy. How many other duplicates could there be especially as the whole lot was not printed in alphabetical in the first place despite having been sorted before being selected. There was only one way to sort this and that was to put all the envelopes in alphabetical order so that we could spot the duplications. When we did, this led to even more irrational thoughts of murderous intentions – as there seemed to be no rhyme nor reason for spitting out ones of some, twos of others, or threes, or fours or fives. And were there any missed out altogether? Short of actually going through the envelopes one by one – there was no possible way to know for sure – yes we could have done a head count but as we had already started to put some in the post we had not way of knowing for definite.

My faith in the efficacy of this sorting method was further smashed by the fact that envelopes were being churned out for contacts I was sure I had moved to an archive folder because the people concerned had actually died and spouses had actually told us that they had died. Were their ghosts possessing the printer or had I really not deleted them from the mailing list? On checking the computer I cannot find them in the database – only in the archive folder as I had thought nor were they on the selection lists, nor were they on the preview pages. One could assume that my mannerisms took on a somewhat deranged character, incredulously exclaiming over totally unfathomable nonsense. I am not sure how pretty it looked from the outside but what I felt on the inside was definitely not pretty at all. The most extensive dictionary of expletives could not match what was going through my mind.

I won’t even begin to tell you about the shenanigans with the printer and the cartridges, sensor errors, belts and drums and suppliers that sent us cartridges instead of drums and so on. That is another tale to be hidden away, swept under the carpet, cursed and sworn at.

I discovered last summer from a database expert – that certain programmes break down if they contain too much information. I have to confess that I didn’t believe him. How can a mathematical, logical thing break down? Surely it should work just as well for several million as it will for a hundred. I am now considering that my assumptions were wrong – they do break down after all. I ask you though – what use is that to anyone? Why if these companies go to the trouble of designing the software in the first place, can’t they actually come up with something that is going to work? When you pay for a BUSINESS package you expect to be able to use it for the purpose for which it was supposedly intended. But redress do we have? What compensation do we get and how do we get it? Potentially this could cost us thousands and thousands in lost revenue and WASTING MY TIME! And when you seek their support and advice you invariably get some cryptic solution that only solves the problem today – may be if you are lucky. By the time you come to use the programme again – it decides to throw out another set of problems. In the meantime we certainly fear for our sanity.

So now perhaps is the time to confess what I have been using – and no doubt others out there will say – “But of course you’re having problems” – or worse still “What are you on about – it’s a wonderful programme you must be doing something wrong!” Well – here goes – it’s Microsoft Outlook 2007. And your thoughts? I had planned to use Outlook as a start and then when I had finished designing a database in Access I could simply and easily transfer the information across. Am I really demented in thinking that this is/was a good idea?

Well I have had it. I am now going to look for a more reliable solution to managing my database of contacts so if there is anyone out there with PERSONAL experience of something that actually works – PLEASE LET ME KNOW.

I will also be looking for people who run mailing services too – reputable ones that don’t cause me more hassle and stress than doing it myself – probably not possible but … worth saying anyway. Less stress and less money too!

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