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Byline: CHRISTIAN WIHTOL Register-Guard Business Editor

IN LATE 1999, as part of a push to sharpen its focus on security software, Symantec Corp. sold off a minor division making a highly specialized type of software that sales professionals used to organize their contacts with customers.

The unit - Act! - had long been neglected by Symantec, analysts say, and it made sense for Symantec to sell the operation to Interact Commerce Corp., a small Arizona-based firm that specialized in similar sales-oriented software.

For Act!'s Eugene employees - about 50 people who took orders from customers wanting the software and provided tech support to users - the change in ownership could have been the final curtain.

But it turned out instead to be just a swift change of backdrop.

Act! has managed to prosper in the increasingly competitive global market for customer-contact software, and that's been good for the Eugene service center. Employment at the center at 400 Country Club Road has swelled to 75 full-time workers. David Grant, an Act! vice president who heads the Eugene operation, says he's in the process of adding five more positions.

Act! remains far smaller than the Eugene-Springfield area's biggest call centers - such as the 550-employee Symantec complex in Springfield.

Still, the Act! facility has become an important training ground for call-center workers who want to develop advanced skills in high-tech work.

A number of Act! employees have segued from Act! to information-technology jobs for other Lane County-area ventures, Grant said. A recent departure is an Act! employee who is now database administrator for the Eugene Public Library, he said.

Other local Act! employees have opted to stay put and work their way up the ladder within Act! as the company grows.

David Rohde 3 1/2 years ago quit his 13-year career as a math teacher at Lifegate School, a Christian high school in Eugene, to join Act! as a tech support analyst, helping customers over the phone install and use Act! software. He's since been bumped up to the job of quality and assurance engineer, testing Act! software before its release.

Rohde said he left teaching because youngsters seemed to lack motivation. He's found a different atmosphere in the software business. "The motivation level is much higher to learn," he said.

Plenty of choices

The local service center's mission is to ensure that once customers buy Act! software - and that's not an inexpensive proposition - they remain happy and never switch, Grant said. "The idea is to keep the customer for life," he said.

But these days, customers have a growing number of rivals to choose from.

Act! specializes in what the software industry calls "customer relations management" software. The software aims to make sales professionals and others more efficient and profitable by helping them easily keep track of their contacts with a myriad of customers and schedule upcoming meetings, presentations and the like.

Act! customizes its software for a number of professions - personnel recruiters, real estate agents, credit and collections workers, financial advisors, and accountants. For example, the software version for real estate agents lets an agent catalog different clients and the type of home they are looking for, then sorts through new-home listings as they come in electronically and e-mails notices of the new listings - photos included - to the appropriate clients, Grant said.

Act! develops its software at Interact's Arizona headquarters.

Act! mostly sells to single users - a solitary sales professional - or to small companies with anywhere from a few users to perhaps 50 or more users, Grant said.

A single user can buy the basic version of Act! for $189.95; a package for use by five sales agents costs $845.95. Initial help from the Eugene service center to set up the software is free, but after that, Act! …