Users of Microsoft's long-awaited upgrade will be able to customize their CRM systems without coding when it ships early in 2006.
Tighter integration with Microsoft Office and improved customization tools are among the new features in Microsoft CRM 3.0, which the company released to public beta this week.
The beta for the Customer Relations Management package is scheduled to run for the next 60 days, after which if all goes well the product will be released to manufacturing before the end of this year to be ready for general release in the first quarter of 2006, said Brad Wilson, general manager for the product.
The new version includes new marketing automation facilities such as lead list, campaign and response management, Wilson said.
"It also has new service scheduling module, which is for complex scheduling tasks," such as businesses that need to manage a field service staff, Wilson said.
CRM 3.0 will also place greater reliance on SQL Reporting Services for all report generation needs rather than on third-party reporting tools such as BusinessObjects SAs Crystal Reports product.
"You can still use [third-party report generators] its just that we are not going to bundle anything like that with the system," Wilson said.
It will also be much easier to program custom data entities and vertical applications in version 3.0, Wilson said.
"If it doesnt exist out of the box you can create [a new vertical application] with no coding whatsoever," he said.
This includes data storage, data entry screens and automatically generates the required Web services interfaces for all the application components, Wilson noted.
The applications can be tailored to broad verticals, such as financial services, or a sub-vertical, such as wealth management, within financial services.
Click here to read Microsofts decision to skip the shipment of CRM 2.0 and jump directly to the production of version 3.0.
Microsoft has already started worldwide demonstrations of the CRM package and be showing it to analysts and IT professionals at Gartner Inc.s CRM Summit next week in San Diego.
Microsoft partners started briefing customers as soon as the beta code was released Wednesday.
Statera, a Microsoft gold partner and IT consulting firm based in Englewood, Colo., worked with Microsoft to provide a sneak peak at CRM 3.0 for about 50 customers and developers in the Denver region, Thursday.
Customers were generally impressed with the new version, said Joe Tinaglia, business development manager at Statera, but they wanted more detail about the closer integration of CRM 3.0 with Microsoft Outlook and the other Microsoft Office applications, including Word and Excel and Microsoft Project.
Click here to read why customers were irked by the prolonged delay in the delivery of an upgrade to Microsoft CRM.
Tinaglia said it looks like the new version has the potential to provide a lower total cost of ownership for organizations that implement it compared to other CRM packages.
It also provides a good range of features to manage customer relations, such as tracking customer e-mails, tracking any sales opportunity from any source and reacting to changing markets and customer demands, he said.
With the new version, "there is a tremendous amount of reporting that they can do with the information that they have" that wasnt possible in the earlier version, he said.
Mike Snyder, principal owner of Sonoma Partners LLC, a Microsoft CRM reseller and consultant in Chicago, said he was most impressed with the "completely revamped integration with Microsoft Outlook that is much improved over the previous version."
It is also easy to export CRM data to Excel and to distribute Excel reports to multiple users, he said.
The new version "bakes in" security clearances into the reports so that individual users only see the data results they are authorized to see, said Snyder.
CRM 3.0 will also refresh data stored in the reports every time they are reopened, he noted.
Customers have been waiting for a major upgrade to Microsoft CRM for the best part of two years.
CRM 2.0 was originally due to ship in the 2004 first quarter. In July 2005, Microsoft announced that it was skipping version 2.0 and jumping directly to version 3.0.
Snyder conceded that customers have been waiting a long time to see CRM 3.0, "but I think it will definitely be worth the wait and then some."
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John Pallatto is eWEEK.com's Managing Editor News/West Coast. He directs eWEEK's news coverage in Silicon Valley and throughout the West Coast region. He has more than 35 years of experience as a professional journalist, which began as a report with the Hartford Courant daily newspaper in Connecticut. He was also a member of the founding staff of PC Week in March 1984. Pallatto was PC Week's West Coast bureau chief, a senior editor at Ziff Davis' Internet Computing magazine and the West Coast bureau chief at Internet World magazine.