Choose the right tool

Storing names and addresses is one of the ways that a computer can help with the running of a small organisation. If you've got this information on a PC then you'll find it easier to produce customer lists, to print envelopes or mailing labels, or just to retrieve someone's phone number.

You have three obvious ways of approaching the problem. All have their advantages and disadvantages. Make sure that you pick the right one.

Word Processor

The simplest way is just to type the names into a word processor. This is quick and easy but you'll find it difficult to do anything useful once you've got more than a few pages of entries. A list of names and numbers can be displayed in a neat format in Word but there is little scope for arithmetic or analysis.

Spreadsheet

The next step up is to use a spreadsheet. Use one column each for name, address, phone number etc and put each customer's details on a new row. This is not really what the spreadsheet was invented for but at least you'll be able to search through the entries, sort them into alphabetical or date order, and use the spreadsheet as the basis for printing a run of labels or form letters.

This can be a good solution for a small number of entries and many Access databases start life as an Excel spreadsheet.

Database

One disadvantage with spreadsheets is that you're stuck with the rows and columns unless you put lot of effort into designing forms. With a straightforward spreadsheet you can spend a lot of time scrolling up and down the screen to find the entry you want and then scrolling from side-to-side because the screen isn't wide enough to show an entire address. A database gets around this problem.

A database is more difficult to set up because you've got to define a structure for the data before you start. The columns in a spreadsheet can contain any mix of data but the fields of a database have to be set up to hold the right amount of the right sort of data. If your database allows thirty characters for the address then thirty characters is all that you can have.

The advantage of this structure is that you can process the data much more quickly and efficiently and you can use the structure to display the information you want in the format that makes it easiest to read. You can have one screen that shows a full list of customers' names, another that shows their full names and addresses one at a time, and another that only shows the amounts owing on overdue invoices.