Microsoft planning to boost CRM apps

Microsoft plans to roll out enhancements to its customer relationship management applications that offer closer integration with its Office 2003 and Outlook products -- without additional license fees.

The Microsoft Business Solutions unit Tuesday announced that an additional service pack to its existing CRM 1.2 application would be released in August. The CRM application has been shipping for a year and a half, and Microsoft boasts 1,800 customers. Although customers have said it was fairly stable, there were nevertheless some performance bumps Microsoft appears to be working to address.

Using the Web services-based Microsoft Information Bridge Framework bundle, end users will be able to more easily create and track customer letters, escalate cases and retrieve customer-related data without having to leave the Office application.

For instance, when a user is writing a letter, a sidebar will pop up and provide relevant case history details, said Holly Holt, group product manager for Microsoft CRM. "It's a way to have fewer clicks to get information," she said.

Similarly, other integration links between Office, Microsoft CRM and proposal software and its Web-based collaboration application, SharePoint Services, are designed to speed up the crafting of sales proposals.

There are also changes to the client administration tools that help manage user privileges. For instance, IT staff can configure the system so users can access calendar information off-site but are unable to save customer information. The staff can also stagger the synchronization of data, based on the type of information. Customer data, for example, could be synced up with the network weekly, while other data could be done monthly.

Microsoft has also added the ability to redeploy existing workflows -- such as those created in beta-testing -- and place them into production without complete reconfiguration or reinstallation, said Holt.

In a separate announcement, Microsoft said it is shipping its Mobile CRM application, which it originally unveiled at the 2004 Convergence user event in March.

These enhancements may not be enough, according to analyst Sheryl Kingstone at Boston-based The Yankee Group.

"A big problem with Microsoft CRM has been performance and usability," she said. Specifically, Kingstone said, there's a need for improved Office integration, improved performance and a version of the software for Pocket PCs. Although the upcoming service pack will fix basic problems -- it's just a "baby step," Kingstone said -- she is awaiting better off-line Outlook performance, as well as sales, service and marketing enhancements.

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