Microsoft takes 'social' cue from Salesforce.com for its CRM

Social tools, Office 365 integration and 'enterprise-friendly' features are part of the latest release

Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled the latest version of its Dynamics CRM (customer-relationship-management) software, which adds some social software functionality as well as closer ties to the Office 365 online productivity suite.

"What we had prior to now is separate environments for billing and provisioning [of CRM Online and Office 365]," said Brad Wilson, general manager, Dynamics CRM product management group. But now customers will be able to order the application "within the Office 365 experience," he said.

Taking a page from rivals such as Salesforce.com, both the online and on-premises versions of Dynamics CRM software will gain micro-blogging tools and social activity feeds that enable users to post status messages and follow co-workers as well as accounts, opportunities and other CRM system records. The features will be available within the Outlook client as well as the browser interface and on Windows Phone 7, Wilson said.

"We're very much trying to make sure we're treating social as a productivity tool and not just a cool new technology," he said. "We're not the first people to have it, but we're aligning it to the productivity experience people already [have]."

Microsoft plans to broaden its social CRM capabilities down the road. It's not clear whether the vendor will end up doing its own take on "customer experience management," an emerging concept aimed at improving customer support and service across multiple channels, whether in call centers, social media sites or company websites and portals.

Oracle made a high-profile entry into that market on Monday by announcing a planned US$1.5 billion acquisition of RightNow Technologies. Adobe and IBM have also made major purchases to support their own customer-experience strategies.

Meanwhile, the new Dynamics CRM release also delivers enterprise-friendly capabilities such as the federation of a customer's on-premises Active Directory system with CRM Online, as well as redundant data centers in various regions around the world. If the system crashes in a certain region, it can be brought back up from the same area. This should help companies remain compliant with government regulations, according to Wilson.

Dynamics CRM now has some 30,000 customers and 2 million users, Wilson said. That figure compares to July 2010, when Microsoft reported 23,000 customers and 1.4 million users.

Its largest single deployment is a 70,000-seat on-premises installation, according to Wilson. CRM Online deployments have become as large as "several thousand seats," he said.

The global launch of CRM Online over the past year has helped sales immensely because it gave Microsoft an easy way to provide trial versions of the software around the world. Previously, in regions not covered by CRM Online, the software would have to be configured and set up on premises. "This has allowed us to scale up our customer engagement model in a big way."

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris's e-mail address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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