MS kicks off Convergence with a look through history

ORLANDO – Microsoft Corp.’s annual North American customer conference got underway Monday in Orlando with much chatter on the past, present and future of middleware solutions.

Convergence 2004: Microsoft Solutions Conference for Customers, held in Orlando, provides a forum for Microsoft customers and partners to network and share experiences in dealing with customer relationship management (CRM) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions to name but a few.

With its “Better Together” motto, MS kicked off the conference by comparing the great minds of the past with the applications of the future.

During his opening keynote, Doug Burgum, senior vice-president of MS Business Solutions, told conference goers that the life we lead today is definitely “not as good as it gets.”

“Our customers (today) are saying that the solutions available now don’t solve their pain issues,” Burgum said. “But, the capability is there to address…their issues.”

Drawing on the past, Burgum explained that just as the early innovators believed the sun revolved around a flat earth, so with today’s environments there is a world of opportunity waiting to be discovered.

He said that despite the amount of customer pain in the market at present, the next decade will bring about a dramatic change in the way customers view their own customer and partner-facing environments. Burgum explained that with the constant innovation in networking, processing, storage and peripherals, systems and software need to be able to respond quickly.

“Our goal is not to set up separate areas for innovation,” he said. “We are focused on integrated innovation of our software. We are better together, not just in our products but in (working with) our partners and customers.”

And, in heeding demand from customers, MS is set to release a new offering this summer that will take CRM to a different level. Called CRMMobile, the application allows wireless salesforces to access customer information in real-time from any Windows CE-enabled device.

CRMMobile is definitely one thing that has piqued Chris Patten’s interest. Patten, vice-president of information technology with The Orthotic Group, a Markham, Ont.-based maker of orthopedic accessories, rolled out MS CRM 1.0 in April of last year to enable the company’s salesforce to better service its customers. MS CRM is designed for the small- and mid-sized business as well as enterprise departments.

Patten said The Orthotic Group is admittedly primarily a MS shop running Great Plains, a collaborative information management platform, along with SQL Server 2000 and Exchange Server 2000. He noted that the company needed a way for its sales representatives to share information with customer service employees to essentially “work from the same page.”

“Our sales reps deal with doctors and patients,” Patten said. “They were using Outlook to manage their activity. With the CRM application, (they can now) work offline on things like patient orders, patient histories and general patient information. We needed customer service reps to be on the same page in the event of customer problems or concerns.”

He said that through MS CRM, customer service agents in British Columbia now have access to the same information as their counterparts in Toronto.

“And, funny enough, out of the box it integrated with Great Plains,” he joked.

Although Patten couldn’t comment on actual cost savings, he quantified it terms of better customer service for the company’s clients and easier usage for sales representatives.

According to Steven Poelking, research director for Toronto-based IDC Canada Ltd., while the Canadian software market counts for nearly $6 billion, ERP and CRM combined account for almost $600 million of that total.

Poelking said that IDC is expecting approximately one-third of the Canadian market to buy, add on or enhance their CRM environments this year.

Michelle Warren, research analyst with Toronto-based Evans Research said there is a huge market in Canada that can take advantage of CRM functionality. “Microsoft has the ability to cover all different areas,” she said. “Customers maintain a strong comfort level in its products.”

Convergence 2004 runs from March 22 to 24.

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