Tale of two CRM strategies: Microsoft and AT&T

Although in agreement that implementation of an internal CRM strategy is no picnic, Microsoft Corp. and AT&T Corp. are diverging on which road to take. The telecom vendor is utilizing a single software vendor while Microsoft is adding Web services on top of applications from multiple providers.

In separate presentations at Frost & Sullivan Inc.’s conference, entitled “Transferring Your Business Using CRM and PRM,” representatives of both vendors on Wednesday said their experience with implementing CRM has been challenging, just like the case at many other enterprises.

AT&T is in the fifth month of an ongoing CRM implementation based on software from the Oracle 11i e-business suite, but thus far the company has had some trying times, according to Mark Foster, vice-president of sales effectiveness at AT&T Business.

Foster said AT&T has experienced its fair share of difficulties in CRM implementation, in keeping with similar industry-wide problems.

Microsoft’s Tim Thiers, general manager of sales and support information technology at the company, said Microsoft also is having its troubles with CRM.

“I would say we’re still struggling with CRM today,” Thiers said.

Microsoft is attempting to deploy its .Net Web services, which Web-enable application services, on top of CRM applications such as sales analysis, call centre, and partner management from vendors such as Siebel and E.piphany.

Rather than having users of the applications integrate these applications on their own, Microsoft is endeavouring to put unified interfaces based on Web services, Thiers said. He likened the plan to an ATM machine, which provides a simplified interface to multiple back-end banking applications.

“You can do all that with this little kiosk without any understanding of the back-end applications. To me, that’s what Web services are,” Thiers said.

Microsoft’s strategy is to take an “initiative-centric” approach using Web services interfaces to aid agility and usability, according to the company.

Thiers cited one application still in development, called Alchemy. The sales account managers application unifies sales management and analysis, marketing analysis, event management, and technical and sales call centres under one workflow-based interface.

Web services, however, will not solve all issues pertaining to CRM, Thiers said. Challenges remain, such as database connectivity, WAN performance, and multilanguage support. Staffing and upgradability also are concerns, according to the company.

“I do want to caution that I don’t see Web services as a panacea,” Thiers said.

AT&T’s Foster stressed the scope of the giant company’s CRM effort. “The investment that AT&T is making in this initiative is one of the largest [AT&T} has made,” Foster said.

Business workflow complexity is the No. 1 barrier, he said. “Our core competency is adding more complexity onto an already complex environment,” Foster said.

“Our first job is aimed squarely at streamlining the product and process complexity for our sales force,” Foster said.

The company’s approach is to deploy off-the-shelf software, namely Oracle’s suite, for Web-enabled CRM applications, Foster said. Using the Web is simpler than a client/server approach, Foster said.

AT&T does not want to customize any base programs, which could complicate software upgrades, Foster said.

Key lessons AT&T has learned so far include the importance of prototyping, which the company has not done, as well as migrating of legacy data, Foster said.