Early Users Encouraged by Microsoft CRM

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Beta testers and early users of Microsoft Corp.'s CRM solution applaud its ease-of-use, integration with Outlook, and general features and functionality, but bemoan the lack of back-office integration in the initial release. Tom Racca, vice president of sales and marketing for iQ NetSolutions Inc., a 30-employee software company in Westboro, MA, has been beta testing Microsoft Business Solutions CRM since last August. Racca says iQ NetSolutions, which is using a CRM offering for the first time, is initially focusing its use of MS CRM mostly on sales force automation, including account management, proposals, orders, pipelining, and forecasting. The company is also using the product in its service department to track all incident calls and manage channel partners. Last December Microsoft announced that the product would miss the 2002 delivery mark set by the company in March 2002, when the product was announced. It would instead be available in "early 2003." Beta testers were not surprised by the delay. Racca says the early stages of the product had a lot of problems that have since been smoothed over and improved. "Microsoft's history is that early betas are not that good, but each beta release gets exponentially better. [Microsoft is] great at fixing and changing things really quickly," he says. Although Racca is more than enthusiastic about MS CRM, he did site a lack of integration with back-office products, and as a user of many of Microsoft Business Solutions offerings, including Great Plains, he says that concerns him. Racca says that items such as front-end price lists don't flow into the back end, and iQ NetSolutions' staff has to enter everything manually. Saflink Corp., which was in the process of testing several CRM solutions, including SalesLogix, ACT!, and Siebel, prior to becoming a Microsoft beta tester, is not hampered by the lack of back-end integration. "Our plan to integrate everything is still a ways out," according to Matthew Anderson, senior director of information technology at Saflink, a Bellevue, WA, developer of biometric software products. The company, which is also a user of Microsoft Business Solutions' Solomon accounting package, has been beta testing MS CRM since last October and has about 100 salespeople using the product to manage the process of converting sales leads from trade shows and to create a pricing catalog. "Because we are just starting out, we can wait six months or so for integration," Anderson says. Microsoft officials say support for back-end applications is farther down the road. The first release of MS CRM will not support Microsoft Business Framework, a .Net-based architecture that offers a common user interface and development environment across all Microsoft business applications. Saflink is hosting the application in house, along with its Exchange servers, and Anderson says that offers tight integration with Outlook that he anticipates will get even better as Microsoft enhances the product. iQ NetSolutions uses the MS CRM solution as a hosted application, and Racca says there are Outlook integration issues when the application is hosted offsite, but the Exchange mail servers on hosted onsite. "Microsoft needs to have Outlook integration in the ASP model," Racca says. Still, Racca says, he thinks that the option of hosting MS CRM or employing an ASP model gives users great choice and flexibility. "I have real-time access to all my front-end data anywhere I have an Internet connection," he says. For example, when Racca was in a meeting recently with a client who had a question about its account history, Racca was able to use the customer's PC and browser to call up the latest information from the MS CRM application. "He was clearly impressed, and gave me the order right there and then. And I was able to enter the information and give him a delivery date right there and then. He seemed to like the idea of working with a company that was that responsive and on top of his business," Racca says. Both Racca and Anderson say the interface is intuitive, but Anderson notes that his users' past experience with ACT! made it more difficult for them to transition to a new method of doing things. "ACT! has a very unique look and feel and MS CRM is nothing like that," Anderson says. "So, it's a new approach for people and required some in-house training."
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