Microsoft Tightens Ties Between Office, CRM

Software giant to leverage ubiquity of Office 2003 in upcoming CRM release

Ever since Microsoft Corp. released its first branded CRM offering nearly 18 months ago, its competitors in the low-end and mid-market CRM spaces have done anything but roll over and die.

That’s especially true of CRM provider Best Software, which shored up its position vis-à-vis Microsoft’s new CRM entry by picking up CRM hosting provider AccPac International Inc. late last year.

Clearly, the software giant has its work cut out for it. It’s no surprise, then, that in the next version of CRM, due out in August, Microsoft will play to one of its greatest strengths—the ubiquity of its Office productivity suite.

Earlier this month, Microsoft announced a new version 1.2 Feature Pack for CRM, which is slated to ship in August. A “Feature Pack,” in Microsoft-speak is analogous to a point release from other vendors.

Its new Office integration notwithstanding, CRM 1.2 looks to be a fairly conservative update by Microsoft standards. The Feature Pack will ship with the software giant’s long-awaited CRM Mobile 1.2, which enables contact and opportunity management capabilities for Pocket PC devices. Elsewhere, CRM 1.2 boasts enhancements to existing features, such as the Sales for Outlook Tool, along with new features, like the CRM Redeployment Tool, which lets administrators set up CRM on a server and then redeploy it to new domains.

The new Office integration capabilities are enabled in part by the Information Bridge Framework (IBF) Microsoft announced last month at its TechEd conference (see The Feature Pack builds linkages between CRM and Office that allow users to access customer data and other information without leaving Office. This is a potentially significant enhancement, says Ian Jacobs, a CRM analyst with consultancy Current Analysis Inc.

“Users will be able to look up customer data, use that data in proposals or even eventually escalate support cases, all without leaving Office,” he points out, noting that customers heavily invested in Microsoft technologies should benefit the most. “Using SharePoint Services and a tool called Microsoft Office Solution Accelerator for Proposals for Microsoft CRM, users [can] collaborate on proposals and administrators can assign access rights to those shared documents.”

Similarly, Jacobs says, CRM Mobile 1.2 helps deliver CRM functionality to Pocket PC-toting sales professionals—an important constituency that, along with Microsoft CRM’s long-time support for BlackBerry mobile devices, helps to differentiate the software giant’s offering. “Combine Microsoft’s partnership with RIM that sees Microsoft CRM on BlackBerry devices and this new bout of functionality and the company has some ammunition to use as a differentiator between its offerings and other packages aimed at small businesses,” he writes.

At the same time, Jacobs notes, Microsoft has its work cut out for it if it ever wants to climb up the CRM food chain. “[Microsoft CRM] allows no more than a single language per implementation,” even though it supports multiple languages, Jacobs points out. “In a united Europe, in Canada, and even in an increasingly multilingual United States, this inability to mix languages is a clear problem spot.”

Other potential problems include the sales-specific orientation of Microsoft CRM’s mobile features, along with the expected paucity of multilingual versions of IBF. “[W]hen the IBF is released, it will support only American and International English,” he writes, noting that Microsoft says it will deliver a version of IBF in German. “But that still leaves many common languages excluded.”

Finally, the software giant hasn’t yet announced plans to deliver a hosted CRM solution of its own, but must instead rely on its ASP partners. That could make it more difficult to compete with Best Software, Jacobs speculates.

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.