Microsoft Tackles CRM

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.

Its fairly easy to see scenarios in which business professionals implement MS CRM alongside IT staffs. Although the business users might not want to concern themselves with Active Directory or how SQL Server tables replicate (technologies that MS CRM relies on extensively), Microsoft CRM is easy enough for those users to create workflows and see how the technology affects their business strategies.

The upside to Microsofts strategy is that it should spur cottage industries around the CRM market and pave the way for technologists in small to medium-size companies to learn basic business skills. The downside is that, at least with this release, thats exactly where Microsoft CRM will remain—stuck with small to medium-size businesses.

Six flavors of CRM

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 prices compare 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.

The test begins

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 from 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, Inc., eliminating the installation headaches. However, we are concerned about how the Windows servers would operate in a shared hosted environment.