By Jason Bomers
CRM has been around for several years and the vendor community has seen the rapid expand-contract-stabilize cycle that so many software companies have experienced over the past five years. Just when the CRM landscape had become fairly stable, Microsoft Business Solutions entered the CRM market when they announced the availability of Microsoft CRM on January 21, 2003.
CRM systems have not always integrated well with an organization’s infrastructure. Microsoft CRM is different because it is integrated with the Microsoft already in place in your organization. There are two interface options for the system, one is an add-in for Outlook and the other is a browser-based thin client that runs against an Internet information services (IIS) Web server. The back-end database is Microsoft SQL Server. Additionally, your users are authenticated through their active directory memberships, moving your network closer to the “single-sign-on” goal.
The level of integration in Microsoft CRM is in stark contrast to some other mid-market CRM packages that may use file-based databases or proprietary technologies. E-mail is usually a difficult feature for most CRM systems since most of them do not offer integrated e-mail clients with the same functionality as Microsoft Outlook. Another problem is that most CRM packages that have an “unplugged” version for the remote sales force have different functionality and appearances between the two versions. Not so with Microsoft. Both the browser-based and the Outlook-based clients are fully functional and have the same interface.
Using Microsoft CRM
The quickest access to Microsoft CRM is through Microsoft Internet Explorer. Running Microsoft CRM is as simple as pointing your Web browser to the right location on the network. One of the first things the system performs is authentication of the user. This is important because, in most cases, the users are logged in via Active Directory and do not need to provide any credentials. Next, most users are struck by the interface, which has a definite “XP” feel, as shown in Figure A. Most users find themselves at home with Microsoft CRM in minutes.
|Microsoft CRM looks as if it is a part of the XP family.|
At the core of any CRM system is the customer and, in Microsoft CRM, the customer takes the form of Contacts and Accounts. “Contacts” represent people and “Accounts” are organizations, and these can be linked together to represent your customers. Throughout the system, there is the ability to create, assign, update, and complete several types of Activities. Activities may include e-mails, tasks, faxes, phone calls, letters, or appointments. They can be linked to either contacts or accounts.
The Sales module allows sales people to manage leads and opportunities, measure and forecast sales activity, and track customer communications. The most impressive part of Microsoft CRM is the ability of the software to support and even facilitate your sales process. For example, your company may have a sales methodology that requires formal documentation of the solution fit and the communication of this solution fit to your prospect. The workflow features of Microsoft CRM allow administrators to quickly create these business rules in the system to automate the creation of the tasks and their assignment to appropriate individuals. As these sales “Opportunities” make their way through the sales process, the system is also able to generate and manage “Quotes” and, ultimately, “Orders” and “Invoices.” You can see this progression in the way that the tabs are laid out for the sales person as shown in Figure B.
|You can manage the entire sales process from one page.|
Built for the road warrior
For most organizations, the sales team spends most of their time outside of the office. And to do their job in the most effective way, their CRM client must work while they’re on the road. Microsoft has addressed the needs of these remote or disconnected users with the Microsoft CRM Sales for Outlook client (see Figure C). This alternate client for the Microsoft CRM system offers identical functionality while being connected to the corporate network as the browser-based client. The real power of the Outlook client is the ease by which sales users can take the full functionality and data needed to do their job on the road. A simple button press causes the Outlook client to synchronize with the corporate database and allows the user to take the power of Microsoft CRM anywhere. One incredible part of the Outlook client is that the interface, while nested within Outlook, is identical to that of the browser-based version (something most other CRM vendors have not figured out). This means users have one interface to learn and they can easily switch from online to offline as needed.
|The Outlook client looks the same as the Web client.|
For any CRM application, integration to the other tools you use day-to-day is critical. For example, a sales person for your organization may receive an e-mail from a prospect regarding a quote. The sales person can take the prospect’s comments and revise the quote and send the new document back to the client. CRM becomes most valuable when it is able to capture all aspects of customer interaction, such as the e-mail correspondence with a prospect and the quote (which is a Microsoft Word document) that the sales person revised in this example. As you would expect from a Microsoft application, integration between the CRM system and Microsoft Office is very strong. If the sales person decides the e-mail should be kept within the CRM system, the salesperson would simply press a button within Outlook and a copy would be automatically attached to the appropriate record within Microsoft CRM. Word documents (or other electronic documents) can be attached throughout the system as well. There is also the ability to export data directly to Excel and to create mail merge documents from templates within Microsoft Word. All this creates a very powerful solution to managing customer communications.
Microsoft CRM customer service helps your service representatives resolve customer issues, respond to requests, and manage support cases from the initial call to the final resolution. A searchable knowledge base can help the service representative answer questions quickly and with timely and accurate information. As support cases are created, they can be assigned to a specific representative or to a queue. Additionally, you could automate your company’s escalation policy by taking the appropriate actions against support cases that remain open for too long.
Getting information into a CRM system is only half of the equation; arguably, more important is the ability to get information out of the system that allows businesses to make informed decisions. The reporting and business analytics capabilities found within Microsoft CRM are provided by Crystal Decisions. The application ships with over 100 predefined reports and, using Crystal Enterprise, organizations can modify or create their own reports. These reports allow the user to quickly analyze the strength of the current sales pipeline, view real-time sales rep quota attainments, forecast next quarter’s revenue, and measure your call center’s call volume. Figure D shows an example pipeline report.
|Generating reports with useful information is easy.|
Another strength of Microsoft’s CRM solution is its integration with back-office systems. Obviously, Microsoft CRM will not be the only system in your organization that contains customer, product, order, and invoice data, and keeping this information current across all corporate systems is always a challenge. To address this, Microsoft CRM includes (for no additional fee) Microsoft BizTalk Server 2002 Partner Edition, which allows you to connect the CRM system to other corporate systems. Predefined integrations exist for the Microsoft Business Solutions applications, including Great Plains and Navision. Using the BizTalk mapping tools, other third-party systems can be integrated as well. The integration component of the Microsoft CRM solution is currently in beta and will be available to the public in the near future.
The functionality of Microsoft CRM can be broken down between sales and customer service. Additionally, there is a Standard and Professional version of each module with the functionality of the Professional version being a superset of the Standard’s. Table A explains what is included with each version by functionality.
Pricing of Microsoft CRM begins at $395 per user for either standard sales or standard customer service licenses. The professional version of either module is $795 per user. And, for the power user who needs it all, there are two suite licenses that allow access to both the sales and customer service functionality. The standard suite goes for $695 per user while a professional suite license will cost $1,295 per user. The final component of the licensing is the server license. If you require any sales or suite licenses (standard or professional), then there is a $995 sales server license fee. Likewise, if you require any customer service or suite licenses (again, standard or professional), there is a $995 customer service server license. Despite all this detail, Microsoft has priced their CRM solution competitively against their competition, including the hosted CRM solutions that often cost more than $100 per user per month.
Now that I have covered the ins and outs of software licensing, let’s move on to the other requirements. A deployment of Microsoft CRM consists of three primary servers: Microsoft CRM Server, Microsoft SQL Server, and Microsoft Exchange Server. Small deployments (up to 30 users) may perform adequately with all three of these server elements existing on the same physical server; however, larger installations will likely require them to be separated onto multiple machines. The Microsoft CRM server requires Windows 2000 Server (or Advanced Server) with Service Pack 3 and requires Microsoft SQL Server 2000 Service Pack 2 to be located within the same Active Directory Domain. Exchange Server 2000 Service Pack 3 is required to support the direct e-mail routing capabilities of the system. Assuming this basic infrastructure is in place, installation is fairly simple, but it does require a few reboots along the way. Once the installation is complete, the system is ready to be explored.
Performs comparatively well
While there are some bells and whistles that (when compared to its competitors) Microsoft CRM lacks, it does what it does exceptionally well for the price. Microsoft’s first attempt at an enterprise CRM solution is very impressive, addressing the sales and customer service needs of organizations with a very complete, friendly, and stable system. Microsoft has raised the bar in the mid-market CRM field.