Microsoft aims high with new CRM offering

Product tightly integrates with Outlook, so company leaders are confident that feds will want to use it.

Microsoft announced the latest version of its customer relationship management product today, and the company expects to capture a significant segment of the CRM market in government and commercial sectors.

“Frankly, I think we’re well-positioned to take a stance in the marketplace,” said Kevin Faulkner, the company’s senior director of product marketing.

“It really pushes usability, adoption and the widespread pervasive use of CRM across a variety of information workers who before were too intimidated or felt that a CRM system wasn’t part of their job," he added. "In fact, it most definitely is [needed] for a variety of tasks that need to be accomplished and done in a structured and consistent way."

Microsoft officials are optimistic about Dynamics CRM Version 3.0 because it tightly integrates with the company’s Outlook program.

They said typical CRM applications are specialized, require detailed knowledge and are not easy to use. But because many workers use e-mail, electronic calendars and other functions, integrating the latest version into Outlook was a no-brainer. The application is widely used, and the CRM functions blend easily.

Sig Behrens, director of Microsoft's public-sector business solutions industry unit, said government organizations have an enormous opportunity with CRM 3.0 to track, for example, constituent correspondence or Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

“If someone is asking about how much was spent on a certain weapons system program, they better have the same consistent answer across the board every time a question is asked,” he said. “A FOIA office, for example, could pull up all particular correspondence on a particular issue to make sure that correspondence is repeatable and consistent.”

David McDonald, Microsoft’s public-sector solutions architect, said the CRM system enables politicians to track constituent activities.

“Outlook does a great job of that because the way you’re reaching out a lot of times to customers is through appointments, tasks and e-mails," he said.

Missouri House of Representatives switched from a homegrown system to Microsoft CRM Version 1.2 about seven months ago. The House participated in a beta test of CRM 3.0.

Richard Christman, deputy director for application development in the legislative body’s Information Systems Department, said he can only speculate about the latest version because he doesn’t have enough experience with it yet. But he said CRM, which they call a constituent management system, is improving communications between representatives and their constituents.

Christman's department created a database of all registered voters in each of the state's 163 districts. When voters write, call or send e-mails, the individual voter is immediately identified. The constituent’s issues, problems and concerns are categorized and responses can be sent via e-mail, fax or by letter more efficiently and cheaply. The system gives representatives a better handle on their constituents’ needs, he said.

Christman’s group is also using CRM to develop a knowledge base. Each question sent to a given representative is captured in a knowledge base along with the representative's response. If other representatives get the same question, they can call up the earlier response.

He said it appears that the latest version integrates more smoothly with other Microsoft products than 1.2 did. For example, he said, if a legislative assistant needed to do a mail merge, the process required more than 20 steps. That has been streamlined to six. Another benefit is that CRM 3.0 is more flexible when it comes to creating reports, which can then be generated into a Microsoft Excel format, Christman added.

Integrating CRM with Outlook helps with training because people are already accustomed to what the application looks like, he said. Following a pilot with leadership offices, he said they are now training about 10 representative offices each week on CRM 3.0. He said they should be completed by the end of February.

Behrens said Microsoft’s partners consider CRM 3.0 to be a development platform for making Outlook more relevant to program offices and mission-critical activities. He said they think there’s a market potential for public safety, incident management and other applications through CRM.

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