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Is Microsoft bringing CRM to the masses?

CRM should fit how people work, not the other way around, Microsoft's Brad Wilson says.

The customer is king, or so the old saying goes. It's a very popular claim in the CRM sector, which has moved from being the preserve of giants to a free-for-all.

With market leader Siebel Systems losing customers in droves and grasping the security of Oracle ownership, the stage looked set for upstart on-demand player Salesforce.com to sweep the field. Not any more. Next month, Microsoft's CRM 3.0 will hit office desks, backed by the resources and expertise of IT's biggest player.

The man in charge of Microsoft's CRM business unit believes that, until now, CRM--short for customer relationship management--has been too expensive and overcomplicated (think Siebel) or too simplistic and restrictive (think Salesforce). Brad Wilson argues that a combination of simplicity and industry standard software will suit users of all shapes and sizes. That, he says, is the key to success: Instead of forcing users into business models restricted by the vendors, give them the freedom to use the ones they already know.

It sounds like "CRM for the rest of us," so ZDNet UK talked to Wilson to find out.

Q: You finished CRM 3.0 early?
Wilson: Yes, we were going to make it generally available in the first quarter of next year, but now we will be releasing it in early December. We have had a tremendous amount of general anticipation around this and between October and November, we will have reached between three and four thousand partners and given them a full day's training on Microsoft CRM 3.0.

Did you decide to bring out the CRM tool early to take advantage of the situation at Siebel?
Wilson: Not at all. Our development time schedules are independent of external events like that. We finished principal coding back in May. We had a very strong hunch we would ship early, but we didn't want to miss that expectation. But the Siebel acquisition has caused a lot of people to rethink their CRM strategy, and that has created opportunities for us to engage in discussions with clients around what they are doing going forward.

Are you ready to announce some of the strategy around the product, for example, in terms of pricing?
Wilson: We have not announced pricing, but for this edition we will have a small business edition, which is prepackaged for Microsoft Small Business Server. We will also have a Professional Edition, which is geared for midsize and enterprise organizations--for more complex IT environments.

So the Professional Edition is designed to take on the likes of Siebel?
Wilson: Oh yes. We are actually selling very successfully to enterprise accounts right now. We're seeing a lot of interest at the enterprise level in a different kind of solution to what Siebel offers. Our approach is a bit different from that of other CRM companies.

The model has been, here's this very complex CRM app, all you have to do is re-engineer your people. That doesn't often work well.

We tend to really focus on user-adoption and user-experience. We focus on what we call a "native Office and Outlook experience," so it puts CRM where people already are, as opposed to trying to have a complex CRM application and force people to use that.

Our whole approach of putting just enough CRM into the desktop, where people use (Microsoft) Office and Outlook, is a big hit with all kinds of companies. With CRM, one of the biggest problems has been user-adoption in the past five years or so.

Why do you think adoption is specifically a problem with CRM?
Wilson: User adoption has been tough for CRM packages in the past because it has always been geared around this other application--a very complicated application. The model has been: Here's this very complex CRM app, all you have to do is re-engineer your people. That doesn't often work well. Our approach has been: Let's figure out how people live and work all day, and let's fit CRM into how that.

So we say, here is CRM that works the way you do. That is our real message to the marketplace. You shouldn't have to be using Office and Outlook all day and then switching backward and forward to the CRM application. The CRM application should be where you work.

Therefore CRM 3.0 is designed to fit seamlessly into that kind of environment?
Wilson: Exactly. We're really pushing a native Office experience, not integration. It is truly built into Office and Outlook. That's what people want, and it really cuts across all segments. They want the right amount of CRM to do their job, but which lets them work where they are already comfortable working.

At the same time, this release broadens our suite. You can get our CRM through Outlook, through a browser, through a Windows mobile device. We've got a very broad footprint.

Will this be available on a Salesforce model?
Wilson: With CRM 3.0, we are introducing subscription-based pricing. You can pay us monthly to use the software with no upfront license purchase. You go through one of our partners, and you will end up paying us for as much as you use every month--no more, no less. If you stop using it, you stop paying us.

So we have been aligning our licensing model with our technology model to allow our partners to host Microsoft CRM for their customers. What we are not doing is putting up a big Microsoft CRM hosted Web site. We are really enabling it through our partner network, which I think works very well, because our partners can do vertical deployments and they have a lot of flexibility that doesn't exist in typical hosted environments.

When you talk about partners, who are you talking about?
Wilson: All of our partners will be able to do hosting--what we call our Service Provider License Agreement Program--but our model is not to mimic somebody else's business model, it's to bring Microsoft's specific strengths into the market. Our ability to have a package that is very easy to customize, that leverages our big partner network.

So the aim is to make it CRM that every company can use?
Wilson: Yes, your front-desk assistant will have just a little bit of CRM to book appointments for people, and your head of sales operations will have a much broader and deeper view across the company.

Is Microsoft trying to address a specific weakness in the market with CRM 3.0?
Wilson: This is a very easy platform to customize. For example, if you want to create a vertical application for a city council, you can easily add new data objects, not found in a standard CRM database model, that reflect what councils have to do. You can rename existing system entities, and you can add new entities--all without writing any code. It will automatically generate all the data stored, (and) all the screens you need, and it will automatically generate the Web services that you connect to on external systems.

You can get our CRM through Outlook, through a browser, through a Windows mobile device. We've got a very broad footprint.

Just one example is being able to create very unique instances of the application using very common tools and very common technologies. That's been a big Achilles' heel for CRM. If you wanted to customize an enterprise CRM application, you had a very complex, proprietary tool set that most organizations didn't know and couldn't maintain, but with Microsoft CRM we have really simplified that. We have done it in a way that it's all driven by application metadata, so it is very upgradable and portable.

That is a very big differentiator for us: deep verticalization and deep customization that you can do using standard technology.