It’s been a long time between drinks for users of Microsoft CRM but there’s finally a new version ready for release and it looks as though the wait may have been worthwhile.
Microsoft has decided to skip a version number with this release and call it release CRM 3.0 rather than 2.0, reasoning that there are enough new features in this release to warrant the leapfrogging.
There is a lot of new functionality, much of which centres around making CRM a platform that VARs (value added reseller) can build on top of to create customised or vertical-market applications. As Microsoft New Zealand’s CRM specialist Phillip Paton suggests, version 3.0 almost qualifies as a development environment in its own right.
New stuff for developers
The base entities that come standard with Microsoft’s CRM — companies, contacts, opportunities, accounts and so on — can be easily customised. But more significantly, with this release it’s now easy to add new, user-defined entities as well.
For instance, Paton demonstrated a sample application that included a “vehicle” entity. Vehicles could be created and assigned (or “related” in CRM parlance) to other entities.
Using the workflow engine that comes with CRM 3.0, users can then define rules that act on these vehicle entities and automate workflow processes. In this example application, the imminent expiry of a WOF triggers a rule which fires an automatic email to the client inviting them to bring their vehicle in for a WOF check. This can all be accomplished without coding using simple form design (see Figure 1) and workflow rule creation.
The form designer is basic rather than full-featured. You can add fields to the form and control the layout by defining tabs and columns. However, the look and feel of the forms created in the form designer is functional and basic rather than elegant. If you want to customise the look and feel beyond this you’ll have to develop your own forms in .NET.
Another new feature of CRM 3.0 is its user-definable “relationships”. Many CRM systems define standard relationships between entities — for example “Joe Bloggs” is “an employee” of “Acme Corporation”.
However, version 3.0 allows you to define your own relationships. Now you can record the fact that Joe Bloggs is not only an employee of Acme, he’s also a “key influencer” on the “Acme Customer” account, and (should you so wish) that he is “a relative of” “Simon Bloggs”, who works at “ABC”. It’s a much more sophisticated and flexible model for recording how entities relate to each other, and better reflects the sort of many-to-many relationships that exist out there in the real world.
This ability to add customised entities and relationships will be of particular interest to VARs who use CRM as the basis for vertical market applications, as it provides scope for much more sophisticated customisation than was previously possible under 1.x without extensive development or third-party add-ons.
In addition, according to the literature (although I didn’t see this demonstrated), CRM 3.0 now provides a service-oriented architecture (SOA) that includes web service description language (WSDL) interfaces for core CRM functions. This greatly widens the options for integration with other applications and is an essential feature in enabling MS CRM 3.0 as a hostable, ASP-style application to compete with the likes of Salesforce.com.
Although nothing has been announced locally, Microsoft New Zealand’s Ben Green tells me that there are plans afoot for local business partners to offer hosted CRM solutions in the near future.
Other developer-specific enhancements include a new developer kit with a simplified programming model that supports Visual Studio’s Intellisense. The workflow engine has also been been upgraded in this release. It’s pretty sophisticated out of the box but, if the functionality isn’t there to do exactly what you need, you can create custom-events as .NET assemblies and tie them into the processes you define.
What users see
The first thing users will notice is that integration with Outlook has been much improved in 3.0. The aim is for users accessing CRM via the Outlook interface to be unaware that they are, in fact, using two different programs. CRM options are available directly from the Outlook menu (see Figure 2) and, where appropriate within Outlook screens, context-sensitive buttons allow CRM functions to be performed.
Microsoft has worked hard to streamline the CRM integration with Outlook. According to Paton, users will find that it takes 50% less mouse work to get where they need to go and accomplish their tasks in version 3.0.
For disconnected users, the synchronisation engine has been overhauled and synchronisation is, reportedly, notably faster than with previous releases.
For remote users there is the choice of a web client or a Windows Mobile client. The web client has a rich-HTML user interface which strongly resembles Outlook’s look and feel, so should feel familiar for users of the Outlook email client.
Modules provide more functionality
By virtue of the new customisable relationships, the sales module can now reflect much more complex relationships between people, organisations, accounts and opportunities than before. An upgraded sales process model also provides for more sophisticated modeling of complex sales processes. And sales activities — such as phone calls — can be driven from the new marketing module, as part of centralised sales/marketing campaigns.
The marketing module is new to CRM 3.0. It provides query and list-building tools for creating target groups of customers or prospects and can be used to plan, execute and monitor campaigns.
Activities arising from marketing campaigns can be driven through into the sales or customer service modules, for example, to create actions that appear on the sales team’s to-do lists.
One feature that I particularly liked was that CRM 3.0 allows prospects to be loaded into “prospect lists” and managed outside of the “live” database of customers — until such time as they are converted into customers via a marketing campaign.
The customer service module receives an upgraded scheduling engine that helps companies schedule and manage service staff across customer service jobs. And there is also a new knowledge base for storing and managing documentation, such as product technical specifications, pricelists, etcetera.
Better data access
The new reporting engine — based on Microsoft’s new SQL Server reporting services’ engine — allows easier report creation and scheduling. Reports can be saved and shared between users in a variety of formats, including Excel, HTML, PDF, XML and CSV. This new reporting engine replaces Crystal Info, so users of version 1.x will need to rewrite any customised reports they have developed.
Users will also benefit from much smoother integration between CRM and MS Office applications such as Word and Excel. Wizards help users to export data to Excel, or to create spreadsheets that maintain live links to the CRM server and are automatically refreshed as data on the server changes.
Finding data is easier too. The search functions in CRM 3.0 have been overhauled with a query-by-example style of advanced search. Users could, for example, locate a list of all Auckland customers who had lodged a support case in the last week (see figure 3). This list can then be saved, exported or used as the subject of a pre-defined process.
More for your money
This release will see a change in the licensing model. Previously, licensing was available at two levels (Standard and Professional) and you paid for the modules that you wanted to use — Sales, or Customer Service or Suite. There will still be two editions with 3.0 (called Enterprise and Small Business Server Edition) but all modules will be included — Sales, Customer Service and the new Marketing module — as part of the package. At the time of writing, pricing for NZ had not been set, but Microsoft NZ expects pricing will be “extremely competitive”.
I was impressed with the amount of work that has gone into this new version of CRM. It shows promise as a base on which vertical-market applications can be constructed. It also offers an opportunity for an ASP model that might well appeal to the SME market. For current CRM users it’s a no-brainer upgrade. Microsoft has worked hard to ensure that the upgrade process works smoothly and reports that New Zealand beta testers have all had pain-free migrations.
For companies looking at CRM options, CRM version 3.0 is well worth a look. Its flexibility and new integration-friendly features look to make it a viable proposition, particularly for SMEs.
- Microsoft Windows 2000 Server or later
- Small Business Server 2003 Premium Edition
- SQL Server 2000 or later
- Exchange 2000 or later
- Win 2k or later
- IE 6.0 or later
- Office 2003 or later