Microsoft CRM Smooths Integration

Built on .Net framework, suite features sales and customer service tools.

BOSTON--Microsoft Corp.s upcoming CRM suite is expected to be light on features compared with competitors, but it may be just enough to enable some small and midsize companies to become comfortable with customer relationship management for the first time, observers said.

At the heart of Microsoft CRM, which the Redmond, Wash., developer demonstrated at the DCI CRM Expo here last week, are several sales and customer service applications.

The software, due in the fourth quarter, provides integration with Microsoft Office 2000 and Office XP applications, Microsoft Great Plains business applications, and other business management applications. It will include Crystal Decisions Inc.s Crystal Enterprise software for reporting and analysis capabilities.

In addition to sales and customer service applications, the first release of Microsoft CRM will have some basic e-mail marketing capabilities through its Outlook integration. But full-featured marketing applications will not be added until a future release, officials said.

Microsoft considers the software 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.

Improved integration with the Great Plains back-office applications is a selling point for Jerry Plitt, controller at The Packaging House Inc., a Chicago company that makes point-of-sale displays. The company runs Great Plains Dynamics accounting software, plus a home-grown application to enter and process customer orders.

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

The Packaging House is looking to Microsoft CRM to provide a packaged application for sales tracking and contact and lead management that would integrate easily with the companys existing applications. It is also looking to Microsoft CRM to support contacts with multiple shipping addresses, something its current applications dont support.

Andy Vabulas, president of IBIS Inc., a Great Plains partner in Atlanta that is participating in the beta, said the Microsoft softwares integration capabilities and ease of implementation could spur CRM use for midsize businesses.

"It should be a lot simpler to install than the typical CRM product," said Vabulas, who has implemented CRM applications from Pivotal Inc., Onyx Software Corp., Interact Commerce Corp. and Siebel Systems Inc. "Lowering the time to business is the key feature everybody wants."

Not everyone is sure Microsoft CRM will live up to the hype, though. Chris Finnecy, product line manager for CRM at Centerprise Information Solutions Inc., in Akron, Ohio, said he plans to evaluate the software when it becomes available and see if it fits into the mix of products his company offers.

A Microsoft Great Plains partner, Centerprise resells Interacts SalesLogix to customers considering CRM, including those who use Great Plains applications.

"We hope its the right fit for our Great Plains customers. That would make our lives a heck of a lot easier," Finnecy 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."

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