Scaling Business Card Mountain

By Jeremy Wagstaff

One day everyone will be beaming/Bluetoothing their business cards to people, or sending them via email as soon as they get home from the Taiwanese Horticulture Convention. But for now we’re stuck with mountains of them on our desk, waiting for that moment that never comes when we might actually do something about them.

I’ve seen a lot of solutions to this problem, and none of them work particularly well. The most common seems to be the ‘Farm It Out to Your Assistant’ routine, which works well if you’ve got an assistant, but doesn’t really help him very much, since he’s going to have to type all those details in somewhere.

I’ve recommended before investing in a scanner, and that’s still a good option. Fujitsu’s ScanSnap lets you scan bundles of about 10 cards in one go, and does a pretty fair job of converting the images to text—what’s called optical character recognition, or OCR.

From there it’s a small step to moving the resulting files into Outlook, or whatever program you use to store these things.

But this still means you’re stuck with waiting until you get back from the convention or kayaking expedition, or wherever it was you gathered the small pile of business cards. By then you’ve forgotten who these people are, or you’re too tired to do anything about filing them away. Soon another convention comes along and the pile builds up.

Your network is rotting before your eyes.

This is made even more absurd by the fact that actually online networks, both for business and pleasure, are blooming. Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, Plaxo, all operate for the sole purpose of making your network of friends and business contacts more efficient.

But name cards seem to still operate in a analog world of their own.

Here’s how I get around this problem. It’s not perfect, but it saves time and means that the leads and contacts you make are strengthened and you can find all the details you need when you need them.

First off, make sure you get a card or a name from the person. If they don’t have one, which often happens, see whether they’re up to sending you their business card digitally. Most phones nowadays make this relatively easy.

Nokia, for example, let you send a ‘business card’ to other users via either SMS text message, multimedia (MMS, a kind of email), Bluetooth or infrared. Be prepared by making sure that you have your own contacts in the phone, along with (preferably) a photo, your business title and address—all the things you’d hope would be on a business card.

(The photo is a good way of reminding other people who you are. I’m sure you’re a very memorable person and the life and soul of every party, but it’s worth hammering home the point. This photo will eventually sit on their phone and in their contacts program, so make sure it’s a good one.)

Be ready to beam these details to someone else—find the contact, select options and then send business card—and help the other person find theirs if they don’t already know how.

Chances are, however, the other person won’t be up to doing this, so just make sure you’ve got their name right, give them your card and ask them to email their details to you.

Chances are they’ll forget, so when you get back to your computer Google them (or look them up on sites like LinkedIn, or Zoominfo, or Wink.) Grab that data and make your own Outlook entry (a great tool to make this easier is Anagram—getanagram.com—which is smart enough to fill out the fields in a contact file automatically.)

If this person is on LinkedIn etc, connect to them that way to reinforce the link and to make sure that their contact details are automatically updated to your database. (More on this in a future column.)

If they do have a name card, as soon as you get back to your room, into a cab, or somewhere you can sit down, get out your cellphone and take a photo of it. Change the camera settings to close up and make sure it’s in focus (the camera usually beeps when it’s in focus.)

It’s possible, you see, to send that photo to a service which will automatically scan the name card, convert it to text (and to a standard business card format called VCF) and email it back to you all ready to go into your Outlook or other contact database. It’s also free. (The scans will also be saved online, should you ever need them.)

The service is called scanR (scanr.com) and works with most types of phone. And it works well. This means you’re scanning the name card almost as soon as you’ve received it, meaning there’s a much higher chance you’ll remember the guy—especially if you add a few notes to the contact details (“Met at party where he was wearing hostess on his head” or somesuch.)

There’s an even faster way of doing this. If you have an account at Plaxo, a networking and contacts backup service, you can tell scanR to automatically send business cards to your Plaxo account. If your Plaxo account is synchronizing with your Outlook address book  then that’s all you need to do. Once scanned with the phone, that contact wends its way back to your address book without you having to do anything.

It may seem a long way around but until we’ve ditched this charmingly antiquated little custom from our business world, I’d suggest that it’s the easiest way to avoid Business Card Mountain.

Jeremy Wagstaff is a commentator on technology and appears regularly on the BBC World Service. He can be found online at jeremywagstaff.com or via email at jeremy@loose-wire.com.

 

11. September 2008 by jeremy
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