Microsoft Tackles CRM - 2

Review: Microsoft CRM is easy to use, but gaps remain in the suite.

Microsoft Corp.s Microsoft CRM raises the bar for customer relationship management in the small and midsize markets. Unfortunately, it was a low bar to begin with.

It might not matter, though. To the IT community, Microsoft CRM is perhaps the most important business solution released to date. Microsoft has blurred the lines between technologist and strategist, something that has needed to happen since the inception of computing.

In contrast, most CRM applications are sold and appeal to business executives, who then task the in-house technologists or system integrators with the implementations. This disconnect is one reason for CRMs well-publicized implementation problems.

There are six flavors of Microsoft CRM, all based on the same core CRM Server. Two versions are focused on sales professionals: Microsoft CRM Sales Standard ($395 per named user) and Microsoft CRM Sales Professional ($795 per named user). Two cater to customer service professionals: Customer Service Standard ($395 per user) and Customer Service Professional ($795 per user). And two contain the full-bundle Microsoft CRM Suite Standard ($695 per user) and Microsoft CRM Suite Professional ($1,295 per user). In addition, CRM Server costs $995. eWEEK Labs recommends that organizations opt for the professional flavors for power users because they are supersets of the standard version and contain basic workflow and other necessary components.

Microsoft CRM pricing compares favorably with those for hosted CRM solutions, which cost as much as $125 per user per month.

Microsoft CRM has potential, and we recommend that organizations looking for a way to automate their businesses start pilot projects and do internal comparisons against established online providers and client/server solutions such as Maximizer Software Inc.s Maximizer Enterprise and Best Software Inc.s SalesLogix.

Our tests revealed that Microsoft CRM is a polished 1.0 release, but its still the first version of a product. For example, it lacks integration with other Microsoft entities, including Great Plains Business Solutions and Navision, and there is no support for PDA access in this version. Microsoft did not even bother to inflate the version numbers in this case, conceding that the product is the first in a long-term strategy.

Implementing Microsoft CRM is fairly straightforward, once organizations have several things in place. First, organizations need to have an available Windows 2000 Server with the latest service packs. Our tests failed for unknown reasons on Windows Server 2003 (the former .Net Server). Next, organizations need to have Exchange in place as well as SQL Server. The cost of Microsoft CRM is exclusive of these fundamental underpinnings, which should be considered when evaluating the overall price of the solution.

Once the basic Windows architecture—including SQL Server, Exchange and Active Directory—is in place, Microsoft CRM is fairly easy to install. The installation uses five CDs, including one documentation CD. We installed the server in two ways: The first was on a system that was running Windows 2000 Server and SQL Server 7. Microsoft CRM requires Windows 2000 Server and SQL Server to be running the latest service packs. Another server was running Exchange.

We were a little disappointed that a system that is supposed to provide a 360-degree view of a companys customers could not provide even a partial view of the underpinning operating system during installation. For example, when we tried to install Microsoft CRM, we were forced to turn on Microsoft Indexing Service. Microsoft CRM should have automatically done a system check that determined what was needed to run before we stopped and started the installation.

For new users, installing the basic components requires at least four reboots, including one for the SQL Server service pack, one for the Exchange service pack, one for the critical updates for Windows 2000 and one for Microsoft CRM, once the installation is completed.

This is a dramatically different experience than running a hosted CRM solution, which requires that users simply open a browser and start populating the system. Microsoft will also offer a hosted version of Microsoft CRM through a partner, ManagedOps.com Inc., eliminating the installation headaches. However, we are concerned about how the Windows servers would operate in a shared hosted environment.

Most of our testing of Microsoft CRM was on the same physical server (a two-CPU Toshiba America Information Systems Inc. server with 1GB of RAM). Microsoft recommends the single-box approach for up to 40 users, and Microsoft officials said the majority of implementations will be able to use the single-box configuration. We found that the one-box approach provided good performance with our test installation base, which consisted of 50 Active Directory users and six licensed Microsoft CRM users.

With Microsoft CRM, Microsoft has decided to peg the license keys to an organizational unit, an approach similar to how Great Plains provides license keys. This method is somewhat inflexible—we found it impossible to change our organization properties without requesting new keys from Microsoft, for example.

Once running, the power of Microsoft CRM becomes apparent. Because it leverages Exchange 2000 as its mail server and Active Directory as its directory server, it is extremely easy to manage users and rights. Other CRM systems, including hosted services such as Salesforce.com Inc.s Salesforce.com, require the management of separate directories and user properties. The disadvantage to the Microsoft CRM approach is that customers must use the entire Microsoft stack for Microsoft CRM to work at all.

Once the Microsoft CRM server is installed, users can immediately access and begin using the system via Microsofts Internet Explorer browser. The user interface is clean and easy to use. In fact, its power is in its simplicity. The browser interface should give hosted CRM solutions—including Salesforce.com, UpShot Corp.s UpShot and Salesnet—a run for the money.

Surprisingly, we found that it was impossible to customize the user interface, something that is a fairly routine task with other browser-based solutions. For customization, Microsoft depends on the fat-client approach, which is based on either Microsoft Outlook or custom Windows forms. Although this customization is extremely flexible and powerful, it requires a knowledge of Microsofts .Net Framework, including the C# programming language.

We found using Microsoft CRM with Outlook to be a good experience, especially since many Microsoft shops use Outlook anyway. The use of Outlook includes the installation of XML Parser 4.0 and Indexing Service on the client as well as the installation of SQL Server Desktop Engine. Its with this configuration that Microsoft allows Microsoft CRM to be used offline.

In contrast, Salesforce.com uses the same browser accessing data via Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations. The advantage to Salesforce.coms implementation is that offline and online versions look nearly identical to one another. The disadvantages are that the offline version of Salesforce.com lacks a security model (it depends on Windows security instead) and that there may be instances in which there are data synchronization errors.

We used Outlook and Internet Explorer interchangeably on Microsoft CRM without problems.

Reporting and analysis is one of the most critical capabilities that business and sales users gain with a CRM solution, and Microsoft CRM shows some potential here. Microsoft CRM uses Crystal Decisions Inc.s Crystal Server 8.5 to spin out usable reports. The current version of Microsoft CRM offers reporting functionality equivalent to most hosted solutions, although UpShot.coms UpShot reporting features are a step above the competitive heap.

Whats missing, however, is a way to run reports across financial data. Running reports against the financial data and the CRM data together is the only way to get a full customer view, and none of the solutions in this space provides the functionality out of the box. Microsoft does not yet even integrate with Great Plains and Navision systems, both of which are owned by Microsoft. However, Microsoft officials have said these connectors are in beta and will be available in the future.

Labs Director John Taschek can be reached at john_taschek@ziffdavis.com.