MSCRM Hits Early Beta Stage

Microsoft's mid-market offering may be just the ticket to drive some small-to-midsize firms into CRM.

Microsofts forthcoming mid-market CRM package, MSCRM, has been released in beta to selected partners with early reviews indicating that the software could be a compelling alternative for small-to-midsize businesses, thanks to its integration with back office and desktop productivity applications.

The software suite, slated for general availability by the fourth quarter, was on display at the DCI CRM Expo in Boston this week. It will consist of several sales and customer service applications and will also provide integration to Microsoft Office [2000 and XP] applications, Microsoft Great Plains business applications, other business management applications and customer-facing Web sites, via XML Web services.

The suite will feature three access points: a Microsoft Outlook-based client, a less full-featured Internet Explorer-based browser client and a Web-based customer portal for the customer service applications.

Microsoft considers MSCRM to be the first business application built entirely on the .Net framework. Users will be able to customize the applications using Microsofts Visual Studio.Net application development tool.

Partners whove seen the beta said they expect it will be targeted to companies with between 10 and 50 seats and relatively non-complex sales and customer service needs, as the first release of the software is expected to be light on features.

But even if its less feature-rich than competing applications, MSCRM may be just the ticket to get some small-to-midsize firms into CRM, customers and partners say.

Improved integration with Microsoft Great Plains back office applications is a big selling point to Jerry Plitt, controller at The Packaging House Inc., a Chicago company that makes point-of-sale displays and is anxiously awaiting the MSCRM release. The company runs MSGP Dynamics now on the back office plus a homegrown application to input and process customer orders.

"We have one IT person; we cant spend time maintaining different platforms," Plitt said.

Plitt said The Packaging House is looking to MSCRM to provide a packaged application for sales tracking and contact and lead management that would integrate easily with its existing applications. The company is looking to MSCRM also to support contacts with multiple shipping addresses-- something its existing applications dont support--and even to handle automated e-mails with customers and rudimentary e-mail marketing campaigns integrated with Microsofts Outlook Web client.

"Siebel would provide that, but its too expensive and too hard to integrate with everything," Plitt said.

Andy Vabulas, president of IBIS Inc., a Microsoft Great Plains partner in Atlanta, which is participating in the early beta, said the integration capabilities and therefore ease of implementation of MSCRM could lift the mid-market software business "out of the doldrums."

"From everything we hear, it should be a lot simpler to install than the typical CRM product," said Vabulas, who has implemented CRM applications from Pivotal, Onyx, Interact Commerce Corp.s SalesLogix and Siebel in the past. "Lowering the time to business is the key feature everybody wants."

Not everyone is sure MSCRM will live up to the hype though. Chris Finnecy, product line manager for CRM at Centerprise Information Solutions in Akron, Ohio, said he plans to evaluate MSCRM when it becomes available to see if it fits in the mix of products his company offers. An MSGP partner, Centerprise currently resells SalesLogix to its customers that want to get into CRM, including customers that use MSGP applications in the back office.

"We hope its the right fit for our Great Plains customers, that would make our lives a heckuva lot easier," he said. "They say its going to integrate real easily, but until I see it do it, Im not going to believe it. Ive been doing integrations for the last four years and not one has gone as smooth as it was marketed to be."

Specific features of MSCRM Sales include account and contact management, reports for sales forecasting and performance management, tracking of customer contacts, lead qualification and tracking, workflow rules for automation of leads routing, notification, escalation and pipeline management, order management and offline access via Outlook.

Customer service application features include case and activity management, workflow rules for automation of service requests, a searchable knowledge base, reports for the knowledge base and performance management, contract and service level agreement management and the customer portal, which will allow customers to enter service requests, check orders, chat and search for support articles via the Web.

While the first release of MSCRM will also have some basic e-mail marketing capabilities through its Outlook integration, more full-featured marketing applications will not be added until a future release. A company representative at the show Thursday said no timeframe has been determined yet for that release.

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