With presence on about 500 million computer systems, Microsoft Outlook is by far the most widely used email application in the world. It is more so entrenched in the business community, where it is not only used for email exchange, but also as a personal organizer able to handle just about everything from your email to your calendar and easily transfer tasks, contacts, and more. In a nutshell, Microsoft Outlook enjoys an enormous popularity.

However, being the most popular email application does not necessarily mean it is perfect. In fact, is far from it. One of the glaring omissions is the feature to extract and export emails from Outlook data store to document formats such as Adobe PDF, even Microsoft own proprietary XPS and Word document formats.

PDF or Portable Document Format is an industry standard for document exchange and archiving. In other term, it is an electronic replacement for paper. Converting emails to PDF can serve many purposes. First, PDF format preserves the source file information such as layout, styles and format of the email. Second, PDF exists in compressed form that reduces the size of the file significantly, making it simple to distribute by e-mail or post on a website. This also makes it an ideal to archive and backup emails so that you have a record of your information in a format that can be easily opened in the future. Additionally, because of archiving, mailbox size can be maintained at reduced level. Third, it is very easy to share with other users because of its size and portability. Fourth, PDF files are viewable and printable on virtually any platform, including Windows, Mac OS, UNIX, Linux and mobile platforms such as iPhone, iPad, Android etc.

Because of the popularity of PDF, Microsoft started supporting it in Office 2007 via a special ‘Save as PDF and XPS’ add-in, available as a separate download. With SP2, PDF and XPS support is natively inbuilt into the Office suite. So, now you can easily save your Word, Excel or PowerPoint documents to PDF natively. Unfortunately, Microsoft chooses to leave support for PDF/XPS out of its Outlook application. Whether that was deliberate or limitation in PDF licensing term, we don’t know for sure. But what we do know is the devoid of PDF and XPS export feature in Outlook is a big limitation.  So, as usual, most of us has to either rely on Adobe Acrobat Outlook plug-in (which means, you will have to buy it and yes, it costs a lot too, $299 for a personal license for the standard edition!) or, make use of a PDF printer driver, to generate PDF document that is not searchable and contents that is not easy to recover or exported to another format. Some even resort to copy-paste of the content of the web page to Microsoft Word and convert to PDF/XPS document, albeit in a crude fashion.

For these reasons, a year back, in an attempt to bridge the gap, I wrote a VBA, that puts a button in the mail inspector window in Outlook, clicking which would feed the HTML version of the email item to Microsoft Word application through command line execution, and convert it into a PDF document. What started as a simple script to meet my own requirement for document generation from emails, has now evolved into a full-fledged commercial add-in application for Microsoft Outlook. It really is a lot nicer. It has a lot of conveniences that make it easy to use, encapsulating all the complex and dirty processes within the familiar Outlook toolbar and ribbon user interface. But in the end it still does that same core function that got it started – it generates PDF, XPS, word documents and web archived pages from any items in Outlook (be it emails, appointments or tasks), with a single click or on its own through automation. These are all achieved, by leveraging your existing investment in Microsoft Office 2007 or 2010 suite. There is no requirement to install a PDF printer driver or a third party library or Adobe Acrobat application.

In its new avatar, Document Exporter is a lot more than just being a PDF converter.  Once you convert an email to PDF or other document format, generated PDF files of the email and attachments can be named with the metadata information contained in the email item itself, such as date, sender, receiver, subject, etc. This way you don’t even need to input and key in the name of the document.

Document Exporter can also convert the underlying attachments of the email to PDF.  You have the choice to output each individual attachment to a separate PDF file, or merge all attachments into a single PDF file where each attachment is joined to one another, or merge the email along with the attachments to a single PDF file such that, each attachment is joined and appended to the email PDF. However, the support for converting attachment to PDF depends on the file format of the attachment. Most of the Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Web or simply plain text file formats are supported.  Here is a list of different  file formats supported for converting to PDF:  docx, docm, doc, dot, dotx, dot, htm, html, mht, mhtl, rtf, txt, odt, wpd, wps, xl, xlsx, xlsm, xlsb, xlam, xltx, xltm, xls, xlt, xla, xlm, xlw, odc, uxdc, ods, csv, prn, pptx, ppt, pptm, ppsx, pps, ppsm, potx, pot, potm, odp, bmp, gif, png, jpg, jpeg, tif, tiff, pcx, psd

One unique feature of Document Exporter that sets it apart from other PDF converter tool for Outlook is in its support to export emails to other popular document formats such as Microsoft own, XPS (*.xps) and Word Documents (*.docx, *.doc), Rich Text (*.rtf), Open Document (*.odt) and Web archive (*.mht). There are five ways of generating PDF and other document formats from Outlook items:

  1. Convert individual Outlook item
  2. Batch convert multiple Outlook items
  3. Append Outlook items to an existing PDF file
  4. Merge multiple Outlook items into one file
  5. Automatically convert new incoming emails

One recent feature addition is the real-time generation of PDF or other document formats from incoming emails. This works by setting Document Exporter add-in to monitor an Outlook folder or mailbox, for new emails. So, when a new incoming email hits the folder or mailbox, Document Exporter automatically processes it to generate PDF or other documents, without any intervention from the user. Now, you can easily maintain a parallel copy or backup of your current Outlook items.

You can also opt to maintain a single PDF file for an Outlook folder or mailbox, such that every new Outlook item received or added to the folder or mailbox will be automatically appended over this single PDF file, containing iteration of pages just like an e-book. This entire process will appear seamless to the user, and you will have a PDF file that has the latest update of your Outlook folder or mailbox.

Finally, you have complete control over the PDF document generation through the Output settings panel.  You can customize the default file naming scheme by choosing your own metadata fields, specify the attachments output behavior, choose single or multiple PDF merge options and modify the page setup and layout etc.

The latest release of Document Exporter add-in is version 6 and works with Outlook 2007 and 2010 (32 bit).  I have also composed a 15 minutes video demonstration on its capabilities on Outlook 2010, which is now available on the product website. If you have any opinions, feedback or questions on this product, I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me at bahrur dot ipham at assistmyteam dot net.

Product Summary:
Name: Document Exporter for Outlook
Website: http://www.assistmyteam.net/DocumentExporter/
Download: http://www.assistmyteam.net/DocumentExporter/Download.asp
Video Demonstration: http://www.assistmyteam.net/DocumentExporter/Videos/

 

You have a business that you aim one day to grow and be profitable. If you are one person support team and have fewer customers, sure, you can provide resolution to their grievances by writing or speaking to them, without logging the details of the customer and nor documenting the nature of the problem. However, what happens if you have a large customer base? Of course, there will be multiple support staffs attending to high number of support requests. How would each one of them remember who sent what and who needs what? How would John know that Monica has already resolved this particular customer’s issue? How would you prevent them from working on the same issue concurrently to avert duplicate effort? What if Monica solved an issue virtually identical to a separate issue John is currently working on? How would John know this issue has been already resolved, so he could use this information to reply to the customer’s issue ? For strategic decisions and intelligence, senior managers would certainly like to know how many times has this particular problem come up for this particular product? How long has this problem been an issue for them?

It is said that success of a business is measured against the level of customer satisfaction on sales and services. In fact, the higher the customer satisfaction is, the repeated business it creates. This is one of the key reason why successful enterprises have a dedicated help-desk team or call centers to caters to the queries and grievances of their customer base. But what makes a help-desk team productive and successful? Well for sure, choosing the right helpdesk system is the first step that can make all the difference.

But how do you arrive to the decision of choosing a particular helpdesk system? Do you need a helpdesk database system that works standalone within your local network? Or do you need a web based helpdesk to enable your scattered support personnel to work on troubled tickets? Or do you require a helpdesk that make uses of your existing email infrastructure such as Microsoft Outlook and Exchange?

Typically, an ideal helpdesk system should support the organizations’ internal logic and workflows, integrates easily and leverage existing infrastructures, caters to the support technicians on the move, enables automation and processing based on customizable rules and most importantly, should be easy to use with little or no training requirement. This is where a helpdesk system based on email client such as Microsoft Outlook scores over other type of support systems. This is because in most businesses, most support staffs use Outlook extensively – all day, every day for email communications, appointments, contacts, tasks etc. As they have relied that heavily on Outlook, it is only natural for them to turn Outlook to a sort of a ticketing system  to support requests and calls from customers. Moreover, as Outlook provides quick access to company’s contacts, address books, mailboxes and public folders stored on a central Exchange server, it makes it much easier for support personals to track, collaborate and log support requests in Outlook.

So Microsoft Outlook is a great productivity office application, something more of an indispensable companion for many businesses. However,  Outlook itself is highly optimized for personal email exchange often falling short when it comes to providing a complete history of an event over time. When an email has been forwarded on to another helpdesk team member, the original owner loses insight into the progress. This has a serious implication, that is, in its original state, Outlook simply lacks the automation, reporting, reminders, and workflow to manage a support ticket request, which is critical for growing helpdesks looking to optimize and uniformly improve support staff/customer interactions.

This is where ‘Team Helpdesk for Outlook’, a plug-in application that I developed two years back, completes the picture. Team Helpdesk overcomes the limitations mentioned above by extending your Outlook as an ideal platform to collect, track and resolve trouble tickets while sharing this information with your entire team. It does this by bringing help desk functionality and automation, and integrating seamlessly with the easy workflow of Outlook. This allows support team to work in the same way they do with emails, something which they are already familiar with. It also adds integration with fixed phones, Skype or SMS gateways to facilitate relaying helpdesk response over these phone or SMS.

Designed as a groupware, Team Helpdesk, when used with a public folder or shared mailbox (with Microsoft Exchange, that is), provides a way for multiple support team to work in collaboration on a number of issues. Monica resolves an issue, marks it closed, and John can search though all of the resolved issues to see if the problem he’s working on has already been resolved. John can also find out how the problem was fixed and use this solution to solve his issue.

By enabling assignment of a particular support agent to work on an issue, Team Helpdesk helps you to ensure your helpdesk staffs are not unnecessarily duplicating effort – John and Monica are not both separately working on Mr. Francas ‘s printing issue at the same time without knowing the other is working on it.


The Ongoing Cases subfolder in Team Helpdesk System in Outlook


The support case form used for logging new support request assistance from customer in Outlook

Another major obstacle many support staffs face is the lack of clarity and overall picture of the reported issue. Most support requests cannot be closed within a single e-mail and response. Feedback from the caller and suggestions from the respective support staffs often occur over multiple request-response emails. Moreover, different members from the support teams may provide resolutions during the course of the request. So, in practical scenario, a support case might have various e-mail versions of the resolution steps, making it cumbersome to get a complete picture of responses and resolution. With the conversation threading feature, Team Helpdesk captures the complete course of the conversation chronologically, from all email communications received or sent (including those automated notifications sent to caller and technicians in due course). The end result is a consolidated view where all the responses to a support request are collated together. Redundant and repeated conversations are filtered out to present only the relevant communications.


The Conversation Threading view of all email communications that had taken place on a particular case

This eases the task of the helpdesk and minimizes repeating what has already been done, while keeping support team members to stay on the track. Another advantage is it allows the technician to quickly glimpse through the thread and get a complete overview on the responses in chronological order and resolution applied to the particular support request, something which is hard to extract from viewing multiple email responses.

Another useful information that senior managements can tract and extract from Team Helpdesk is trend analysis. Let’s say you get a lot of support requests on how to rectify papers getting jammed inside printer. By running statistics or searching through the resolved cases, you can articulate how often this particular topic needs assistance. If you find support requests received on this particular issue rampant in the past, you may decide to create a knowledge base article on the problem and publish this KB on your support website. This would, in turn, serves as a first level support service to customers. Therefore, without a helpdesk system to track these types of questions, you would never be able to figure out which knowledge base articles or frequently asked questions need to be published.

Team Helpdesk works great when automated. You can put your customer service online 24/7, even after office hours or holidays. You can install the managerial tool of Team Helpdesk in your windows server (as it runs 24/7 non-stop) or you can simply designate a particular workstation that is pretty much 24/7. With this arrangement, Team Helpdesk can continue to monitor your support mailbox, without any human intervention and generate tickets out of incoming emails automatically, assign technicians and notify callers and technicians with ticket number allotment with emails or as a SMS message to their mobile devices.

Support request received via emails seldom contain basic details on the nature of the issue. And often, there is a back-and-forth communications that goes between the helpdesk and the customer, in just try get hold of these information, long before the technician can start resolving it.  With the Team Helpdesk Customer Web Service website, you can guide a customer in the way they report their problem to the helpdesk. By having required fields such as the model number of the printer, brand and driver version, etc. you not only cut down the communication loops, but also put in place a structured format of logging new support cases in the helpdesk system automatically.

As you can see, there is no excuse really not to have some kind of helpdesk functionality for any kind of business that involves an end-user. Even if you have a small business and are managing the support requests yourself, you will find some kind of helpdesk ticketing advantageous to use. For enterprise business, you will find helpdesk system an absolute necessity in order to save time, money, and effort tracking your support request issues, as well as to enable collaboration, eliminate duplication of effort and documenting problem resolutions for reuse.

The publication of this blog incidentally, falls in the same period as the release of version 6 of Team Helpdesk for Outlook. Version 6 added three main features which are described in this 6 minutes video tour

If you are interested in learning more, or even evaluating it for a free 60 days trial, you are welcome. Just visit the product home page at http://www.assistmyteam.net/TeamHelpdesk/

 

In most businesses and corporate houses, staffs and managers rely heavily on email communication with their clients, stakeholders or team members. Along with the email are flood of document files that get embedded as attachments. Over time, as emails get accumulated in the recipient’s mailbox, there comes a plethora of problems for both the IT administrators and for the general users alike. Sluggish performance of Microsoft Outlook, email taking a long time to open or delivered, frequent corruption of mails and attachments and even worse, exceeding the mailbox size restriction are some of the obvious complains most IT managers are accustomed to, from their staffs. These symptoms become more pronounced as mailbox data store size increases. And this is particularly of a concern for small businesses, that has limited IT resources and skills at their disposal. And for those businesses that have their mailboxes in the cloud, space is at a premium and if proper optimization and attachments policy are not implemented, the cost of cloud service might actually prove expensive in the long run. So, the question is, what can one do to prevent breaching mailbox size restriction? Is there any effective solution (and cheaper too) that you or small businesses can implement to optimize their mailboxes and extract the maximum usage out of the available size?

The answer is ‘Yes’. Outlook performance and mailbox size go hand in hand, and in 90% of the case, the sluggishness or breach in mailbox size restriction is primarily to be blamed to the presence of vast number attachments, ranging from small Kilobytes to large Megabytes, and even in hundred Megabytes. There is also a problem with redundant attachments being accumulated in the Sent Items folder because a copy of each message that you send is saved underneath it. This not only fills up the mailbox but also increases the size of Outlook data file. Most IT or Exchange administrators would recommend to move old emails to another data store. Even though that might ease the problem for a while, this is only a short term workaround. What most of us failed to realize is the size proportion between the email itself and its associated attachments.

So, the long term solution to frequent mailbox limit breach is not ‘Archiving’, but to do away and disconnect attachments from the mail items altogether. And store them externally from Outlook, and still maintain the hard link between the mail and their associated attachments. Besides, mailbox space are pretty expensive when compared to a local disk, and files and documents load up faster from local folder too than loading up from the Outlook data store. So this advantage itself favors the argument for moving attachments away from Outlook. But, if you had expected Microsoft Outlook would offer a wizard or tool to do just this, then you are in for a big surprise. There is no such feature built-in to Microsoft Outlook. This glaring devoid for an effective mechanism for mailbox/Outlook PST size optimization in the world’s most popular email client comes as a big disappointment for normal and power workers alike.

But nevertheless, Necessity is the mother of Invention. And that is exactly what had happened and that is why this particular blog has being written for – an add-in solution for Microsoft Outlook that is designed to bridge the gap between mailbox optimization and Outlook, by performing the detachment and storage of attachments outside of Outlook with complete user transparency, and yet still offer seamless integration of external attachments to emails in Outlook.

Attachment Manager add-in in Outlook 2010 fluent ribbon

Attachment Manager for Outlook not only helps you to save precious space on your PST or Exchange mailbox, but also contributes in making Outlook run much faster with better performance, and removes the requirement for constantly archiving duties. Furthermore, at times when there is a need to move the attachments back to original mail item, like when replying or forwarding, Attachment Manager can automatically re-attach the associated files from the local disk back to the original email.

Another very useful feature (for which many users had appreciated) is the level of automation Attachment Manager can operate. Like for instance, user can set Attachment Manager to monitor and track any number of Outlook folders and shared mailboxes to automatically detach attachments from new incoming emails, without any intervention from the user. This enables user to focus on their tasks and not worry about mailbox space running out, which in turn, results in better Outlook performance and response. In short, automation makes you productive.

Here is the official video demonstration that was released for version 3. This flash video walk through you on how to configure and use Attachment Manager in Microsoft Outlook 2010.

If you find the video above a bit distorted or blurred because of the restricted size, you can view the actual size (800×600) here.

So, with Attachment Manager, you have the flexibility of reverting back to storing attachments to the emails, or detaching to an external repository. In either case, you continue to have access to the associated attachments from the email and that is what user experience is all about.

You may wonder what other benefits may possibly be there for storing attachments outside of Outlook. In fact, there are many useful application of it. Apart from documents and files loading faster from a local disk than that from Outlook data store, having the required documents on to a shared network folder make it a sensible choice for sharing documents and files among team members. And as network folders are seldom disconnected, administrator can take comfort that critical business documents are available all the time. Another aspect is the instant accessibility from the file folder. This might not always be the case for Outlook, as it is prone to corruption or going awry, and when it does that, attachments and other business critical documents might not just show up, or in the worst case, might get lost in the ever growing mailbox data store. Also remember that fact that there is an inbuilt security mechanism built-in to newer Microsoft Outlook (starting Outlook 2003) that prevents certain attachments such as .exe, mdb etc. And you may counter this by saying, it is a required feature against virus and malicious activities, and I would agree. But the point is about having access to files in Outlook in a trusted environment, which most of the corporate and business networks are.

I hit upon the idea of developing this particular add-in solution (read it as ‘Attachment Manager for Outlook’), when I started working on Exchange Server in Windows 2003 4 years back. But it was not till another 3 years that I finally got serious into its development. Since its first release, many organizations and individuals have adopted it, and in fact, there has been increasing demand for new enhancements and features, which lead to the launch of the current version (version 3). The widespread adoption of this attachments solution looks very promising, considering that Microsoft Exchange based mailboxes form a large chunk of mail solution for most business and corporate entities, and that has been a force of motivation on me to write this particular blog and share my perspective.

For those of you interested in learning more on ‘Attachment Manager for Outlook’ or possibly evaluate it , refer to the product home page at http://www.assistmyteam.net/AttachmentManager/

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