Microsoft hits the road to show MS CRM

Seven weeks after shipping, Microsoft Corp.'s closely watched Microsoft CRM (customer relationship management) software has attracted 300 customer orders and is being offered by more than 1,000 resellers, Microsoft officials said Tuesday during a seminar, part of a series being held throughout North America to demonstrate the software to prospective partners and customers.

The package is the first major offering from Microsoft's Business Solutions unit, and is Microsoft's first application built entirely on its .Net integration and development technology. Combining account activity, history tracking, communication and reporting features, the software integrates tightly with Microsoft's popular Outlook personal information management and communication software.

That Outlook integration is the cornerstone on which the software is built, Microsoft executives said during presentations at the seminar. The target customers for Microsoft CRM are small and midsize firms seeking entry-level CRM. In design discussions with companies in that market, Microsoft found that many used Outlook, and would more readily adopt a CRM application that resembled software already understood by their employees, said Lynne Stockstad, general manager of global product management for Microsoft Business Solutions.

One potential customer at the event also cited the Outlook integration as a big attraction.

"Outlook is what I use, and this has the same look and feel," said Dennis Smetana, founder of Vision Style Inc., a New York firm that sells custom contact lenses.

Smetana is working to develop a Web site and sales portal for his company, and as part of that process wants to purchase CRM software to facilitate customer tracking. He expects to make a purchasing decision within the next few months, and to buy licenses for 30 sales and customer service employees.

Smetana said he came to Tuesday's event to learn more about Microsoft CRM. He's also planning to evaluate software from Siebel Systems Inc., but said he's leaning heavily toward buying from Microsoft.

Another attendee said he's intrigued by interface's familiarity to Outlook users, but leery that the software might still require too much input from users unaccustomed to using Outlook for more than basic e-mail tasks.

"If employees don't use it, then this is a castle built on quicksand," said consultant Alan Kirk Gray.

He came to the seminar on behalf of one of his clients, the Darien Library in Connecticut. With 20,000 active users and a burgeoning array of community services under its management, the pubic library is thinking about ways it can better stay in touch with its constituents, Gray said.

Microsoft executives spotlighted several customer implementations during their presentation, including those of leadership training center Maximum Impact in Duluth, Georgia, and the Jacksonville Jaguars football team in Florida.

Many customers are kicking the tires of Microsoft CRM, but a significant number are waiting to deploy it until the software is further developed, according to the head of one consultancy working with the software.

"There's an awful lot we wish was in there that isn't," said Ben Holtz, chief executive office of Green Beacon Solutions LLC in Watertown, Massachusetts, which focuses on midmarket CRM projects.

Green Beacon has one client installing Microsoft CRM, and several prospects evaluating the software, Holtz said.

"I think these people (who are deploying now) are betting on the Microsoft tradition of them coming out with a fairly simple version 1, a better version 2, and being the leader in the marketplace by version 3," he said. "We know that there will be better additions to the product, and they're building on .Net, which is solid enough to support a lot of growth."

In the meantime, Green Beacon is filling the functionality gaps it perceives with home-grown add-ons, including an organizational chart feature and enhanced relationship management tools.

More than 100 ISVs (independent software vendors) are offering Microsoft CRM enhancements or customizations, said lead product manager Lynn Tsoflias. Those include added features like fax management and business-card scanning functions, along with tailored industry-focused versions of the software aimed at customers in various sectors, she said.

Microsoft is still developing some of the back-office integration it touts in Microsoft CRM. Due by the end of Match is an integration kit for linking Microsoft CRM with accounting software from Great Plains, one of the acquired companies that became part of the Microsoft's Business Solutions unit.

Also in the works and due in the last half of 2003 are international versions of Microsoft CRM, including editions in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Danish, Tsoflias said.

Pricing for Microsoft CRM ranges from US$395 per user plus $995 for the server software for a standard Sales module package to $1,295 per user plus $1,990 for the server for a "Professional Suite" package.

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