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Microsoft CRM targets usability

At its annual Convergence conference, Microsoft continued to tout usability and flexibility in CRM as user adoption remains a key CRM hurdle.

SAN DIEGO -- Microsoft continued to stress usability and tight integration between its CRM application and Office products during its annual Convergence business application conference being held here this week.

"In the last 10 years, companies have spent a lot of money on deploying CRM technology and solutions," Brad Wilson, general manager of Microsoft CRM, said during a presentation. "It takes too long to deploy, it's too difficult to align business and IT. Probably the biggest single issue is you've gone through all this time and expense and people don't use it."

Experience suggests that companies need to focus on user productivity, business agility and flexibility, Wilson added. In fact, Microsoft itself has learned a lesson when it comes to large CRM systems.

"Eight or nine years ago, Microsoft bought a large enterprise CRM package," Wilson said. "I won't say who but you can probably guess. It's a company associated with large complex CRM."

Microsoft spent tens of millions of dollars on a system that was rated a 14 on a scale of 200 by users in an annual application survey, according to Wilson, and while there's obvious public relations incentive for Microsoft to rip out Siebel Systems and replace it with its own application, there's a move afoot to make CRM simpler.

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Last year at its Sapphire conference, SAP touted 2006s, a new CRM user interface based on its on-demand application. In January, Oracle unveiled its new Siebel 8.0 product with a new task-based user interface (UI).

"But 2006s is still not out," said Rob Bois, analyst with Boston-based AMR Research. "Siebel 8 has task-based UI similar to the message we're hearing today [from Microsoft]. It's definitely a direction most are addressing."

CRM remains plagued with user adoption issues, despite efforts to make it simpler, according to Bois. With its familiar Outlook e-mail applications, Microsoft will have a step up, particularly with sales reps, he added.

Microsoft's flexibility was a major factor for Chempoint, a Bellevue, Wa.-based distributor of specialty chemicals.

"We look at it as a product that's very easy to use," said Edward Lux, vice president of technology. "It doesn't have real deep functionality. It's wide."

Chempoint was an early adopter of Microsoft CRM, deploying the product as soon as it was available. It is also a member of Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program (TAP) and has deployed Microsoft Sharepoint 2007.

"We don't spend any money in the past," Lux said.

Yet, Chempoint has only rolled out Microsoft CRM to its business development organization -- about 10 seats. The rest of the sales organization runs on Onyx.

"The reason we're using it today is we're willing to ride with Microsoft," Lux said. "We could have just as easily used Onyx in the business development side."

However, when Onyx warned Lux not to deploy Explorer's version 7 because it couldn't support the new application, it gave him pause.

"If they're having that much [of a] problem coming up with a solution for Explorer 7.0, God knows what else there is," he said.

Chempoint, has created its own UI based on Sharepoint. As Microsoft CRM develops, the ability to configure the application could convince the company to move its CRM operations over.

"We'll have to see the product mature," Lux said. "With the next generation -- what is it the I generation? -- the solution is all about me. A customized version of what I do for my job."

Microsoft hopes to be that customized version. Wilson will demo the next version of Microsoft CRM, code-named "Titan," during Wednesday's keynote address by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. He'll be demonstrating Microsoft's Software as a Service (SaaS) application, run on the company's Live platform, which features on-demand customization capabilities and integration with Outlook. SaaS vendors like San Francisco-based Salesforce.com have made significant strides, particularly in the midmarket, thanks to its usability by most accounts.

After years of failed implementations, CRM vendors are putting the user first.

"Most of the vendors were sidetracked with industry verticals and functionality," Bois said. "It's a big challenge for SAP, with Microsoft, that's their expertise."

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