Product Review: Streamlining sales

After months of rumblings out of Redmond , Microsoft Corp. finally released Version 1.0 of its Customer Relationship Management (MS CRM) Professional Suite Edition late last month. The wait has paid off: There is little doubt in our mind that the new suite will change -- for the better -- the landscape of the controversial market segment.

MS CRM has solid and very usable functionality for managing essential sales and customer service processes, which rely on a robust database structure capable of recording a comprehensive set of information comprising customers, contacts, support issues, products, leads, opportunities, quotes, orders, and invoices.

In addition, robust service contract administration features and a flexible knowledge base publishing structure simplify handling customer support issues. Add to that a versatile reporting system (delivered via included Crystal Reports), well-designed administrative option, and tight integration with Active Directory and Exchange 2000, which simplifies managing users' authentication and message routing.

Some essential functionality is missing or not fully grown in this first version. Users can't create and follow marketing campaigns nor can they scan transactional records for business analysis. Perhaps more significant is that the much-needed integration with back-office applications has yet to be implemented. Microsoft is working on Version 1.1, expected later this year, which will add support for multiple locales.

It's easy to guess the big picture: Microsoft plans to make its CRM suite, flanked by a handful of back-office applications for small and larger companies, the dominant application, repeating Office's overwhelming success in that segment.

Not as easy to predict is whether customers will prefer Microsoft's CRM, delivered and supported directly or via business partners, to proven and established solutions from competitors such as Epicor Software Corp., Netledger Inc., and Inc.

Solving the installation puzzle

MS CRM comes in two flavors: The Standard Edition targets customers with mitigated requirements, limited to sales and service issues, while the Professional Suite Edition offers more customization options and is open to integration with ERP systems.

Deploying MS CRM entails installing the CRM server software on a Windows 2000 machine and CRM Outlook (the disconnected client) on laptops of traveling sales and service reps. For all other clients, you will need only Internet Explorer 5.5, (or later versions) to run the browser-based client.

Depending on what you already have deployed in your company, installing the CRM server can be a chore or a walk in the park. The suite's stringent requirements call for the latest version of every prerequisite software, which includes, of course, Windows 2000 Server, as well as SQL Server 2000 and Exchange 2000. The CRM server install script automatically checked prerequisites and installed the .Net extension to Windows 2000.

Active Directory (AD) is an additional requirement, which can be a blessing or an impediment to your deployment. If you are already using AD, the CRM suite will incorporate, with minimal effort, your organization units, groups, and users structure. If you are not using AS, budget time to deploy it and to include non-AD servers in that structure.

Microsoft likely foresaw the problems the requirement might cause: MS CRM includes a comprehensive implementation guide that pinpoints with great accuracy the numerous prerequisite, licensing, and implementation details for all required software. In addition, Microsoft offers online help and Web-based training classes to familiarize administrators (and users) with the suite.

For our review's limited transactional requirement, we were able to squeeze all the server components, including Exchange, SQL server, and CRM on a single GHz, 384MB Windows 2000 Server, and the response times over the intranet were quite good. For all but very small configurations, however, you should consider spreading those components among multiple machines.

Getting down to business

Once we completed our installation, we launched Deployment Manager from the CRM server. This administrative tool simplifies tasks such as managing database schemas, users, and licenses. With a few clicks of the mouse, we entered the license key and were able to automatically create CRM users from AD.

Next, we logged in to AD from a client PC and pointed the browser to our CRM server; the home page of MS CRM opened on our screen. Interestingly, we did not have to log in again, thanks to AD authentication. The payback for AD integration is single, secure intranet sign on, but for users who access the application from the Web, you should deploy a certificate server to handle SSL authentication via IIS.

With deployment complete, we delved in MS CRM's business features. The browser-based GUI, shared by users and administrators, is well-designed and consistent for all users. On the home page, users have a summary of their current activities, reminders of companywide messages, their calendar, and quick pointers to creating new activities, such as writing a letter, fax, and e-mail or accessing a sales, service, and reports feature. A menu bar at the top of the screen offers a more conventional navigation to the same functionality.

Administrators have access to the system settings, which include defining business units; assigning users and their privileges; preparing forms to access information such as leads, customers, and contacts; and creating templates to simplify new e-mail messages, service contracts, and articles for the knowledge base.

MS CRM's numerous administrative features are very powerful and should make it easy to adapt the suite to fit the myriad business requirements of its target customer base. For instance, users' access rights are based on three-dimensional matrices that specify how each role can access information, such as accounts, leads, or products, depending on the context ( sales, service, or business management) and the scope (user, business unit, or organization). The resulting grid of rights is not very intuitive, but it allows a degree of granularity and synthesis that we rarely see in other CRM offerings.

A well-designed product database is the obvious cornerstone of many customer-facing activities, including sales opportunities, quotes, orders, and support contracts, and the one found in MS CRM satisfies requirements such as recording sellable products and services, suggesting possible substitutes, and storing technical literature. In addition to basic information such as multiple packaging options, quantity on hand, list price, and acquisition cost, the product database supports different and articulated price lists (for seasonal promotions and year-long sales, for example), and discount options. We did not see the possibility of defining product assemblies or supporting multiple warehouses, two features that we recommend for future versions.

Another interesting characteristic of MS CRM is the capability of recording information about competitors. For instance, when creating a new opportunity, which is easily and automatically done by converting an existing lead, a sales rep can access the product database to add items and find pointers to competitors offering similar articles.

In addition, the sales person can add data about competing offerings and draw a quick analysis of how that opportunity compares with other offerings in the market. Adding competitors' information bears additional cost and effort, but it helps a sales person to make a more targeted, market-aware offer to a customer, increasing the probability of closing the deal.

We found navigating the various modules of the suite to be intuitive and pleasant. Users have their own degree of customization that, within the limits of the security rights and custom forms set by the administrators, make possible adjusting the browser client to personal preference and frequent business activities.

In addition to predefined forms and templates, several other time savers speed up data entry, including automatic numbering of documents, such as opportunities, quotes, orders, and invoices, or quick linking of related entities (a customer to a parent company or an order to an opportunity).

As we mentioned, disconnected reps can use a client that integrates (predictably) with Microsoft Outlook 2000 and offers one-click synchronization of local and remote databases: You just choose Go Online or Go Offline to start the process. Alternatively, you can save local changes to the central database at any time, typically after a significant update.

But what we liked most about the MS CRM offline client was its identicalness to the browser-based alternative, which makes for easy transition from one to the other. In fact, clicking a new CRM tab inside the Outlook pane opens a list of account, contact opportunity, and other business records. Click on each item, and the same IE-based online client will open on your screen.

The Outlook client, however, has only a subset of the browser client's functionality. Most restricted features are intuitive and predictable, such as changing system settings or access to the knowledge base and reports, but others are perplexing. For instance, service cases and sales literature are accessible from Outlook only when users are online, which may seem odd to support or sales reps on the road.

Despite that, we liked our first experience with Microsoft CRM, although we noticed a couple of minor glitches in Version 1.0, such as content not painting correctly on nonmaximized windows or e-mail messages with some meaningless characters in the subject line.

Understandably, the ambitious project of creating a comprehensive business suite will take Microsoft some time to complete, even with its deep pockets and countless resources. In its current iteration, the suite certainly is worthy of your attention, but companies that have pressing and still-evolving functionality requirements, should probably wait or look elsewhere.