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Microsoft CRM, the No. 1 pick for Trail Blazers

With one of the most heralded basketball players in years joining the team, the Blazers are turning to a new CRM system to help serve a suddenly rabid fan base.

Things changed suddenly for the Portland Trail Blazers last May.

With just a 5% chance, the team beat the odds and won the National Basketball Association lottery, giving them the right to select first in the annual draft of amateur players. With it, the team picked Greg Oden, a highly regarded seven-foot-tall center who led Ohio State University to the national title game last year as a freshman.

"We've been on a roll since that day, and the guy hasn't even played a game yet," said Chris Dill, vice president and CIO with the team.

Just as the arrival of a tall, athletic 19-year-old can change the fortunes of a team on the court, it can also change the business. The Trail Blazers sold 3,500 season tickets before the team even selected Oden. And as the organization overhauls its roster, it's also overhauling its IT systems, including deploying 100 licenses of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0.

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"I always had a keen eye on the Microsoft product," Dill said. "I've been watching this product mature. I looked at Microsoft CRM when 1.0 came out and said, 'Nope, not ready for prime time yet.' That's a well-known thing with Microsoft products."

But with Dynamics 3.0, Dill and the Trail Blazers felt the time had come to make the switch.

The Trail Blazers will be launching the CRM system over the next two months, and while the timing is fortuitous, with a new star joining the team, the project has been in the works for years. The Trail Blazers implemented Onyx CRM during the 1988-1989 season, which happened to be the year a player strike shortened the schedule. The team was in a down sales cycle recently, until the arrival of Brandon Roy, last year's Rookie of the Year, helped begin to turn things around, Dill said.

"Over the past three years, we've been working on this plan to rebuild our systems for when we started to hit this product cycle going back up," he said. "It just happens it went up drastically because of the luck of getting the No. 1 draw."

Things are looking up for the Trail Blazers, and they seem to be looking up for Microsoft CRM as well. The company reports that it sold more than 85,000 seats of Microsoft Dynamics CRM in the last quarter, and it is preparing to release the next version of its CRM product, code-named Titan, complete with a multi-tenant, on-demand version, in the fourth quarter.

One might think that for a basketball team owned by Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, the decision to deploy Microsoft CRM was an easy one, but Allen does not have a hands-on approach at that level, according to Dill.

Rather, a couple of things appealed to Dill about Microsoft CRM, particularly its tight integration with the Outlook email client, an application most of the organization works within already. He added that the .NET architecture, mobile integration platform and a workflow engine, which the team doesn't have with Onyx, were all factors.

"This is a more pliable platform, with changing screens and drop-down menus," Dill said. "I have a programmer where there are things that would take days in Onyx that will take minutes on Microsoft. I sort of describe it as Onyx being a 70% solution. I think this is going to be closer to an 80% solution, and my longer-term goal is to get it to 88%."

On the business side, the team is hoping to leverage some upsell opportunities and a better understanding of customer behavior once the CRM system is in place. For example, knowing what customers have called customer service and why, how much a particular advertiser spends with the team before important meetings, or convincing people who come to one game a year to come to two. And as the team sells more season tickets, that means more effort on renewals next year.

"At the end, customer relationship management is about treating your customers as [well] as you can," Dill said. "In the world of sports, we work on a renewal basis. I want you to have good experiences at the game, dealing with people from parking to prices to games."

Greg Oden throwing down dunks and blocking shots will certainly help with that, but sports teams are learning they can't depend on things like that.

"In the end, when you chart out your goal for the year, you have to take out the situational things -- a player could get hurt, could get traded," Dill said. "You can't rely on Oden. Oden is going to bring a certain amount of easy money, but marketing and sales need to go beyond that automatic yield."

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