Microsoft prepares to release its new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application, which users will be able to access through Outlook.

Microsoft apparently has been listening to companies whose sales and customer-support people spend much of their time working in Outlook. The result is the forthcoming Microsoft Customer Relationship Management (CRM) application, planned for US release late this year and international release during first quarter 2003. The product will include Sales and Service modules, which users can purchase separately or as a suite and can access through Outlook or a Web browser. In a demonstration earlier this month, David Thacher, general manager of CRM at Microsoft Business Solutions, showed how Outlook users will be able to use Microsoft CRM data offline, a real benefit for sales people who need to check those figures before making presentations to potential clients.

Microsoft contends that companies using the familiar Outlook interface will see productivity gains faster because users won't need training on a new program. (Enhanced business productivity is one of three design goals for CRM, with the others being low total cost of ownership—TCO—and integration with existing business systems.) Microsoft designed CRM for midmarket companies, which Thacher described as organizations that have dedicated sales, service, and marketing teams but lack a large IT department to implement a CRM solution. Thacher said these companies might have between 50 and 500 employees, of whom as few as 15 or as many as 150 might use the CRM product.

Microsoft CRM will come in both Standard and Professional versions. The Pro version will include extra features such as workflow and email management (preferably using a connection to Exchange Server). In addition, the Pro version will integrate with Microsoft Great Plains and newly acquired Navision applications for back-office management. Thacher said third-party application developers will be able to take advantage of an embedded Microsoft BizTalk Server to integrate with Microsoft CRM. The Microsoft Developer Network (MSDN) will release a software development kit (SDK) for CRM integration. Microsoft CRM won't be an off-the-shelf program, though. The product will be available through various Microsoft partners who will get sales and integration training this fall, during the final stages of the current beta.

Microsoft built CRM on Microsoft SQL Server, using the new C# language for Microsoft .NET. Thacher said CRM will be the company’s first .NET business application. The Service module will let companies build a knowledge base of past cases and their solutions, and the Sales and Service modules will integrate so that sales reps can keep tabs on any recently reported customer problems. Built-in tools will let CRM administrators add data fields, build workflows, and make other changes to adapt the product to their company. Thacher said the interface won't be completely customizable but demonstrated that when users change a form (e.g., to add a new field), the altered form will work in both Outlook and Web browser clients.

One feature from Microsoft's original plan for CRM won't make it into version 1.0: the ability to build a customer portal from the CRM knowledge base and other data. Thacher said that feature is still in the works for a later release. Thacher also said that Microsoft plans to port key functionality from Microsoft CRM to bCentral—Microsoft’s set of hosted application services for small business—removing any features that small businesses might consider overkill.