Microsoft commits to customers as it updates Dynamics CRM Online

The first day of Microsoft's annual business application user conference was light on new features but heavy on Microsoft's pledge of commitment to its customers.

NEW ORLEANS -- Not surprisingly, the global economic crisis served as a central theme at the opening keynote here

at Convergence, Microsoft's annual business applications customer conference.

Also not surprisingly, Microsoft positioned its applications as the best way to weather the economic storm.

"People quite naturally want to tune their businesses to the current microeconomic conditions," Kirill Tatarinov, corporate vice president of Microsoft's Business Solutions, said in the keynote address. "Very few people are able to zoom out and look broadly and position themselves for the future. Opportunity creates possibilities. It's really about the possibilities change creates for us."

Quoting a speaker at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tatarinov added, "Don't waste a good crisis" -- as unorthodox as that may sound.

To survive, businesses need to be adaptable, flexible and able to integrate IT and business processes, he said. The consensus, according to Tatarinov, is that the current financial situation will last until the middle of 2010, and when it's over, things will not go back to normal.

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Governments around the world are attempting to stimulate the economy, but that will come at the cost of deeper regulation and compliance requirements, and companies will need modern, integrated applications to comply. Also, a new workforce is emerging that is familiar with consumer applications and will demand the same level of usability from their business applications.

In conjunction with the event, Microsoft today issued a new release of its Software as a Service (SaaS) CRM application, guaranteeing uptime and offering new lead capture and cloud integration capabilities, and making available its free CRM accelerators.

The uptime guarantee offers a standard service-level agreement of 99.9% uptime for all customers. Customers will receive a credit of one month of fees if the SLA is not met. Planned outages and system maintenance are not covered, nor is downtime of individual features.

While the uptime guarantee may not serve as a significant differentiator for Microsoft, it's still an important step, according to Rebecca Wetteman, analyst with Boston-based Nucleus Research. 

"I think it's important, particularly because Microsoft wants to gain credibility in this space," she said. "Customers are interested in an uptime. What we've found is the uptime with on-demand is just as good if not better than on-premise applications but as Microsoft is trying to gain ground it's a critical piece."

Internet lead capture allows users to create customized landing pages for marketing campaigns or local sales representative campaigns to drive qualified leads into the sales pipeline. New lead tagging offers a view into campaign performance. In addition, new cloud integration services allow customers, ISVs and partners access to Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online's data and metadata application programming interfaces (APIs).

"It addresses simplicity and time to value and it gives you and the people in your organization the ability to run CRM online with ease," Tatarinov said. "It also exemplifies our commitment to the online service. We launched a year ago, and we have updated it twice."

The CRM accelerators, detailed last summer, are free, downloadable extensions to enhance the CRM application in between major point releases. Currently available accelerators include Analytics, Business Productivity, CRM Notifications, Enterprise Search, eService, Event Management, Extended Sales Forecasting and Sales Methodologies.

The accelerators are an exciting development for Rick Hankins, CIO of the American Red Cross of Greater Cleveland, an attendee at Convergence, who has some immediate plans to put them to use.

"As soon as I get back," he said. "It's going to extend our abilities to do what we have to do. It's going to absolutely give us more efficiencies."

The accelerators should also provide some incentive to prospective customers.

"In general, looking at ways to make it easier and more predictable for customers to deploy CRM and users to use CRM is a factor customers are looking at right now," Wetteman said.

Economic conditions have stifled spending on IT hardware and software, but that has not led to greater interest in SaaS versus on-premise software, Tatarinov said.

"We certainly see speculation driven by the press and our competitors that only have SaaS model but we don't see that preference," he said in a question-and-answer session with journalists after the keynote.

The company also issued a number of initiatives to help spur sales.

Microsoft is offering discounts for attendees of the conference for Microsoft CRM Online and its ERP products.

Today, Microsoft announced a smart pay program which ultimately allows customers to start using Dynamics products and not have to pay for another six months.

Last fall, Microsoft began offering zero percent financing to customers to help spur sales and while that program is ending, it did the job, Tatarinov said.

"From partners it really helped them close the deals," he said. "The pipeline was there, this helped customers make that purchase decision."

Microsoft also teamed up with EDS, now a subsidiary of HP, to host Dynamics CRM at 180 of its data centers around the world for new and existing clients

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