Microsoft’s CRM update set to sail

Microsoft Corp. plans to begin shipping Microsoft Dynamics CRM (customer relationship management) 3.0 on Tuesday, finally releasing to customers the first major update to the CRM software Microsoft launched three years ago.

Microsoft CRM’s 3.0 version fills in functionality gaps that had left Microsoft lagging behind its midmarket rivals. The update adds a marketing automation module for direct marketing and a service scheduling module to coordinate staff schedules. It also fixes glitches that had frustrated customers, such a problematic synchronization technology for remote users.

Microsoft partner Mike Snyder, the principal of Chicago services firm Sonoma Partners LLC, cited improved Outlook and Office integration and the ability to add custom entities to Microsoft CRM as two of the most useful enhancements.

Custom entities allow users to create parent objects to which customer entries can be linked. For example, a user can create an apartment building object and link to it profiles of the building’s occupants. Previously, creating such objects required custom programming. Now it can be done by an administrator without any coding.

Microsoft CRM 3.0 finally brings to fruition Microsoft’s long-promised seamless links between CRM and Outlook, Snyder said. Customizations made to CRM will now carry over into Outlook, and the two applications share a nearly identical look and feel, those who have seen early versions of CRM 3.0 said.

“You really can’t tell where one ends and the other begins,” said AMR Research Inc analyst Bruce Richardson.

Customers who bought Microsoft CRM soon after its launch have had a long, often frustrating wait for substantive improvements. Microsoft put out a point release in December 2003 to fix glitches and add in a few new features, but it scrapped a planned 2.0 release to spend additional development time leaping straight to version 3.0.

Door maker Designer Doors Inc. bought and deployed Microsoft CRM several years ago but put the software back on the shelf after running into a host of problems — most painfully, synchronization glitches that made the software impossible for remote workers to use.

“We had put a lot of effort into making this our centerpiece for sales and marketing. It’s been expensive for us to find workarounds,” said Michael Kruger, information systems manager for the River Falls, Wisconsin, company.

Kruger plans to spend at least six months testing CRM 3.0 before redeploying Microsoft CRM. Meanwhile, Designer Doors is making do with homegrown applications.

“We intend to evaluate it carefully to see if the changes that we need have been made,” he said. “We have attended some preliminary demos, and the issues that we had appear to have been addressed.”

Microsoft CRM 3.0 will ship first in English, with Dutch, French, German and Russian versions joining the lineup Jan. 1. By mid-2006, Microsoft expects to have versions available in 22 languages, including several such as Japanese and Simplified Chinese in which it did not offer previous versions of its CRM software.

Microsoft is tweaking its packaging for this release, offering two versions, Small Business Edition and Professional Edition. Each features full sales, marketing and service functionality, according to Brad Wilson, Microsoft’s CRM general manager. The Small Business Edition is designed to run on Microsoft’s Windows Small Business Server, which has a 75-user cap, and offers tools for migrating from Microsoft’s Business Contact Manager software.

Microsoft sells Dynamics CRM through its Volume Licensing program, with prices varying depending on the licensing program being used. Small Business Edition pricing ranges from US$440 to $499 per user and $528 to $599 per server, while the Professional Edition costs $622 to $880 per user and $1,244 to $1,761 per server.

That’s a revised price range from Microsoft’s original CRM licensing costs. When it launched its CRM software three years ago, pricing for a sales-only license was $395 per user, while the full suite went for $1,295 per user.

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