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CRM contacts clean-up: From stinking thinking to syncing thinking

If you really, really wanted to strip it down to its most basic function — where it all got started, as it were — a customer relationship management system (CRM), like Dynamics 365 Sales, is where your people “live.” 

Which makes one of its primary functions to serve as a central database of contacts. Rest assured, while not everyone may always use the robust campaigning or dashboarding or forecasting tools built into Dynamics CRM, absolutely everyone puts their contacts there.

And that’s a blessing and curse. It’s a good thing that people have a place to store and share customer info. But as anyone who has implemented or overseen a CRM knows, maintaining a clean list of contacts is a weekly daily hourly constant challenge.

Why is it so difficult?

There are too many reasons to count… but to be blunt, typically the amount of reasons you can’t seem to keep your contacts clean tends to match the amount of CRM users you have entering those contacts.

But people are people, so let’s instead focus on practices and processes, namely the tech being used, and the two most guilty parties are Outlook and mobile devices.

If, for example, you’re a B2B sales rep, you absolutely live in Outlook and on your mobile phone. When you meet, get a business card, or get an email from someone new, you typically right click and “Add to Outlook Contacts.” (Hopefully. Worse, you let your mobile phone do the work and add it to your mobile phone contacts.)

If this describes how your salespeople work, then your primary database of contacts is the collection of the Outlook Contacts or mobile phone Contacts across your entire sales force. And your way of ensuring consistency in how those contacts are captured is essentially nonexistent.

But wait! There’s more…!

A contact is not just a name and a number: it could be MANY names and numbers. And a name and number could also have many contacts attached. (Dizzy yet?) Because a contact is often both an individual person (the contact) and the person’s employer (the account), and there are almost always different phone numbers, primary emails, and physical addresses for both.

But wait! There’s STILL more…!

In your company today you likely also have a master database of customer companies with billing info attached that lives in your Accounting or Dynamics ERP system (i.e., outside and often not connected to CRM, Outlook, and mobile devices).

And if you’re campaigning to your contacts, you likely have yet another database of names and emails and companies in your marketing automation system or email service provider (ESP).

And in most cases, the way a contact is entered in CRM isn’t how it’s entered on an iPhone, or how it’s entered on ERP, or ESP, or WTVR.

So if you want to build a proper database of contacts you need to keep all of these data sources in sync. Here, we’re looking at one person, Walter Fawcett. But look at all the ways he’s “known.”


  • Jim’s Outlook: Walter Fawcett at Arbela

  • Karen’s Outlook: Walt Fawcett at Arbela Technologies

  • Eric’s Mobile: Walt F @ Arb

  • ERP: Arbela Technologies Corporation with no contacts

  • CRM: Walter Fawcett with no company affiliation

  • Microsoft Marketing: Walter Fawcett,, Arbella Company

You get the picture, and it ain’t a pretty one. Trying to get this cleaned up is not easy. And if you do the work to get this cleaned up, how do you keep it clean? We’re just looking at one not-pretty picture after another, right? Wrong. There’s hope, and it comes from Microsoft.

Step one: choose a source of TRUTH

The first thing that you need to do is to decide what system will be your master authoritative database for contacts. For most companies, the master database should be your CRM which should support sales (and be connected via mobile apps), marketing (and have a bi-directional feed with your marketing automation platform or ESP), and customer service. 

NOTE: the only exception is to allow the ERP to have a master (or co-master) database for accounting contacts (billing, legal notices, et al.). These contacts are typically smaller in number (e.g., you may have 1,000+ contacts at Exxon, but only one for invoicing), and they don’t change that frequently.

The second thing to do is pick a platform. We’re a Microsoft Partner, and so are biased here ; ) but the reasons to go with Microsoft speak for themselves, namely the breadth and depth of its business tools (Office, Outlook, LinkedIn) and the tight integration of those tools into the CRM platforms.

Step two: that syncing feeling

Want to get your team in-sync? Make it easy for them. Because your “opponent” certainly is making it easy. Your “opponent” here is the ease of use in creating a contact in Outlook or on a mobile phone.

To defeat this opponent, you need to make it as easy to create a contact in CRM as it is to do in Outlook or the phone. (And let CRM sync the contact to Outlook and/or a mobile device.)

The plumbing with Dynamics 365 and Office 365 is all there, you just need to configure it properly. Here are some tips on how to do it right:

  • Server-to-server connection: the connection between CRM and Office 365 should be a server to server connection. A CRM server to Outlook client connection has all sorts of issues. A server-to-server connection will get the contact record into Exchange and from there Exchange will get it to all connected devices.

  • User-controlled syncing: the standard behavior of Dynamics 365 is to sync Contact records for which one user is the Owner. However... there are issues with this. First is that a record can only have one Owner, but many people may need to sync to that single Contact record. Also, you may not want to sync every Contact record you put into CRM. To optimize user-controlled syncing, Arbela has tapped the following methodologies:

    • Marketing Lists: for each user create an “Outlook Sync” Marketing List (e.g., “Walt Fawcett – Outlook Sync List”). Then, create an Outlook Sync Rule that syncs all contacts on your Outlook Sync list. We like Marketing Lists because they have some cool tools to manage the list like “Add / Remove from Advanced Find” and “Add to Marketing List” button.

    • Sync Followed Contacts: for this all you need to do is create an Outlook Sync rule to sync any Contacts that you follow. The downside to this is that it is not easy for one user to follow a Contact for another user. For example, if a Sales Admin wanted to sync a Contract for an Outside Rep, you need to build a custom function. Also. managing Follow lists can be a bit tricky and it is not easy to see a list of users that are Following a Contact. So while it works, it’s not an approach we have used often.

    • Use an N:N Relationship: this is a similar approach to the Marketing List method except that we create an N:N relationship between Users and Contacts rather than use a Marketing List. Then we create a Sync rule that syncs all Contacts related to the current user. The downside to this approach is that you don’t get the list management features of Marketing Lists.

      (As you can see, when it comes to user-controlled syncing, we favor Marketing Lists.)

  • Sync to Outlook Checkbox: add a checkbox called “Sync to Outlook” that, when checked, automatically sets the relationship for a user through a workflow. This is super handy on the Quick Create form for Contacts. An optional method is to create a button instead of (or in addition to) the checkbox.

If you follow these steps, you will have a stable syncing mechanism that is super easy for your staff to use. And once the contacts are synced, changes made by one user in Outlook will push back into Dynamics and then back down to all users that are syncing the contact.

Next up: clean-up and consolidation! Stay tuned...