BOSTON -- Microsoft Corp. delivered a sneak peek at its soon-to-arrive CRM package this week at the DCI Conference being held here.
Due out sometime during Q4 of this year, Microsoft CRM appears at first glance to look and feel like the Windows applications that have made the Redmond, Wash.-based software vendor a dominant force on business desktops. Among the features the company highlighted during the demonstration were the software's sales and field service capabilities.
Microsoft has repeatedly made clear its intention to specifically target only small-to-medium-sized customers with the impending release. Despite nagging rumors that the software giant will eventually tackle the enterprise space, most industry watchers feel the company is currently aiming for clients with fewer than 50 user seats.
"Right now the key focus for us is usability and simplicity," said Robert Keuroglian, U.S. CRM solutions manager at Microsoft. "We know that smaller companies are looking for the kind of tools and back office performance that only larger companies could afford in the past."
Keuroglian also underlined the significance of the CRM release as the first product built on Microsoft's .NET software architecture, an XML-based platform the company hopes will serve as a development standard for next-generation Web services. Microsoft also played up the applications' integration to its existing Office product line.
Users rate the software
Early reviews from conference attendees seemed fairly optimistic. Jack Cahill, administration manager for Cambridge, Mass.-based Product Genesis Inc., said the package is something he may consider when his company looks to change CRM providers. Cahill manages nearly every aspect of IT at the 35-employee product development firm, staffed largely by Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduates.
"It's great to finally see more opportunities in CRM for companies of our size," Cahill said. "We need something that doesn't demand a giant IT department."
Cahill said his company currently uses another CRM vendor but finds the software not user friendly enough and hard to customize. He praised the Microsoft offering for its similarity to the Microsoft Outlook e-mail platform. Product Genesis already uses Outlook as a contact management tool and is considering Microsoft CRM as a way to unite its sales force.
"There are certainly very attractive aspects of the enterprise CRM products out there, but it would be nice to have something that integrates seamlessly with Office," he said.
The IT manager also said that pricing would not necessarily play the most important role in whether his company chooses Microsoft for its next CRM package. Performance and ease-of-use will be Product Genesis' two biggest concerns, according to Cahill.
Rony Sodhi, software architect at Westborough, Mass.-based call center specialist eCallData Inc., said he thought the CRM tool looks good so far but cautioned that integration will be the key to adoption.
"Integration will be a huge success factor and that has to include back-office requirements as well as the ability to work well with Oracle," Sodhi said. "It does seem user friendly."
The view from the enterprise
Not surprisingly, larger companies attending the conference were still found poking around the demo area. Many expressed simple curiosity when asked why they were investigating the upcoming release.
"We aren't who they had in mind designing this product and that much is clear," said Bob Watkins, a manager at G.E. Plastics, Pittsfield, Mass. "This couldn't meet our data mart and analytics requirements, but you can see where they're trying to go in terms of ease of use."
Of course, not all who participated in the demonstrations were blown away by the promise of Microsoft CRM. At least one attendee was overheard calling the package little more than "Outlook on steroids." But even those not yet sold seemed to recognize some promise.
"There's great potential as everyone uses Outlook," commented Michael Yurchenko, a CRM consultant for Boston-based Enterprise Technology Group. "But there are clearly things that you can't do with contact management, based on what we've seen. Other products out there, even for the low end, will still have more powerful traditional CRM capabilities."
Yurchenko said he thinks pricing and integration will play heavily into the fortunes of the Microsoft platform.
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