Like I mentioned in my previous post, cloud-based services are quickly becoming the default mode that people expect a CRM application to be delivered to them. Microsoft is clearly focusing their efforts on responding to this change of environment, but so far the availability of Dynamics CRM Online has been strictly limited to North America. The international launch of the service has been promised to take place in the second half of 2010 (probably together with CRM 5.0 roll-out). Until then, there seems to be little for us Europeans to do, apart from reading CRM Online blog entries from the US colleagues.
I was lucky to recently get access to a CRM Online development environment, provide to us by CoreMotives as a part of our evaluation use of their Marketing Suite. Here are some of my initial impressions on the differences and similarities between Dynamics CRM Online and the good ol’ on-premises Dynamics CRM.
Outlook client setup
Since my work laptop’s Outlook is connected to a production CRM instance, I decided to try the CRM Online with my home PC. The installation file download took a while, but soon we were on our way.
I decided to skip the SQL Server installation to speed things up and settle for the online-only version. After all the patches had been applied, I was greeted with a login window for the Outlook client.
From here onwards everything seemed to work just like in the familiar on-premises CRM world. Perhaps even a bit too closely, as the first prompt that greeted me when accessing CRM Online was a notice about scheduled maintenance downtime later on the same day.
Oh well, I guess the cloud needs some regualr reboots, just like any Windows machine.
CRM Online user inteface
Like with the Outlook client installation, most things look very familiar inside the CRM Online UI. The home page does however present some new features to us.
CRM Online contains a feature called Get Started Panes, which provide contextual information at the top of the main CRM window entity screens. By default these contain categorized instructions on common tasks a user might want to perform when working with e.g. accounts or opportunities.
What’s really nice about this feature is that it provides an additional customization point where you can inject your own help menus into the Get Started pane. See the SDK for more information on how you can use the GetStartedPanePath and other variables to customize the panes through Sitemap XML. Looking forward to having something similar in the on-premises CRM, at least by the time CRM 5.0 is released, since I can think of many cases where providing company-specific process instructions right inside the CRM UI would be very practical.
Another visible new feature is of course the dashboard style charts that are presented at the CRM Online home screen. Although not too fancy in their appearance or feature set, it’s nevertheless a nice addition to the product, making basic data visualizations something that can grab the attention of the CRM end-user more easily, maybe even driving him or her to have a closer look at the actual reports menu. The charts have a few settings available for the user to customize to his liking, including record type, selected view and the type of chart.
For those users who need to rely on CRM Online as their only system for reporting on customer data, things are still not so great, as using SQL Server Reporting Services for building custom reports is not an option. Well, there are of course ways to arrange it, as outlined in this post on the Dynamics CRM Team blog recently, but exporting offline data snapshots might not sound appealing to all users.
Internet Lead Capture
One additional marketing feature not available outside CRM Online is the Internet Lead Capture menu.
Basically what Microsoft does is they offer to host landing pages or online forms that feed data to your CRM Online database. While this sounds like a nice idea, I’m not too sure how many companies would in practice be willing to utilize a hosted contact form page that exists outside their website (you can find some live pages by searching for “dynamicssite.com”). For a quick’n’dirty landing page for some specific campaign this might be an option worth considering. The editor makes creating integrated forms a fairly easy task, so playing around with the option is a fun little exercise.
I won’t go further into details, as the lead capture form has been covered with many screenshots in this blog post by MS. One thing to note is that the Internet Leads are stored into a separate entity from the regular Leads, thus allowing you to filter out spam messages before assigning the data to your sales reps. Importing data from external lists collected from other sources into the Internet Lead entity is supported through a wizard.
Ok, this is not a feature limited to only CRM Online, but since I hadn’t previously had the chance to use a CRM server that could be accessed directly through the web, I wanted to test how the Mobile Express client has evolved since the days of 3.0.
What’s the verdict? Well, let’s just say that it’s “a nice try” and better than nothing, but there’s still a long and winding road for Microsoft to travel, if they intend to reach a mobile user experience that would somehow be at least close to what is delivered through the web and Outlook clients. The whole process was full of pitfalls that shouldn’t really exist: from trying to desperately log into the service with a Windows Mobile phone (HTC Touch Pro2, with Opera as the default browser), fighting with the useless default customization configurations, to the point of eventually realizing how the relational data model of CRM is only partially supported in Mobile Express. There could be some specific use cases where the mobile client would serve its purpose, but as a CRM system admin I might hesitate on promoting these to the CRM users who don’t understand the limitations.
The overall impression from Dynamics CRM Online is definitely a positive one. It’s not a lite version of CRM, it’s the real thing, with only a few differences and some limitations that you need to be aware of. Combining the ease of deployment with the integration possibilities gives a very interesting value proposition for the product.
During my test usage, the response times from the CRM Online server were surprisingly decent, compared to using one of our own on-premises CRM server in US through a web client from Finland. With a proper roll-out to international markets and the enhanced solution management functionality promised in CRM 5.0, I’m sure the service can become a very viable option for companies of all size.
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