This, then, is the ABC of CRM.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 logoI’ve been spending a fair bit of “quality” time recently with Microsoft’s customer relationship management (CRM) product – a solution that was released at the start of 2011 as part of their Microsoft Dynamics suite of tools.

As with any new main product there’s a wealth of online information. So here’s a quick introduction to the product to help you to get oriented amidst that mass of information, and to quickly become a CRM-expert for the next pub-quiz/game-show you attend! Some useful references are provided at the end.

This, then, is the ABC of CRM.

A – The Application

CRM 2011 is available in both “on premises” and “online” flavours. You can buy the software and install it on your own servers using a local active directory for authentication or you can consume it “in the cloud” based on a software-as-a-service (SAAS) model in which you pay per user per month. Cloud authentication is based on Windows Live accounts and can be as cheap as CHF 9.80 a month.

The SAAS route is one that Microsoft has been pushing heavily and prospective customers can sign up in about 30 seconds for a free 30 day trial with no string attached.

For both “on premises” and “online” versions you can interact with the CRM through your browser (currently limited to IE 7 and above only) or via a client install which adds CRM functionality to MS Outlook. 

With the Outlook component users can work with all of the CRM data via an extra set of folders and can “track” emails, contacts and appointments directly from their inboxes, so no new interface or tool to learn. The CRM provides a special interface rendered for mobile phones, and Microsoft also recently released an iPad tablet app.

B – Out of the Box

Out of the box, the solution is pretty flexible. It comes with a large number of existing data objects (called “entities”) for things like contacts, the companies they work for, marketing campaigns, notes, documents, templates for document generation, etc.:  All the sorts of things you’d expect from a system that aims to track people and organisations and your company’s interactions with them.

Charting, reporting and dashboards are nicely done (based on SSRS) with in-built editors for users to construct their own personal ad-hoc reports. They can then use these reports to navigate and filter data (for example, by clicking on a pie chart area to “drill down” tabular data).

Screenshot of CRM Dashboard

The CRM provides its own security management tools – users belong to security roles and are mapped into business units that control what data they can access and what they can do with that data. It provides a very fine (and fiddly) granularity for access control and the security applies throughout the system – from what field appear on web pages, to the data used in reports, and any data that is exported.

Integration with MS Office allows exporting of static or “dynamic” data to Excel (in which the data is refreshed from the CRM each time Excel is opened), generation of MS Word documents from templates stored in the CRM, and strong MS Outlook cooperation for users to keep their emails, contacts and calendar appointments in-sync.

The solution includes a workflow engine for automating key business processes or providing wizard step-by-step prompts for data capture and processing, and there’s a scheduling engine for allocating resources and individuals based on set rules.

Perhaps the most interesting feature (to developers) is that there are extensive in-built tools for customising the solution and a full API for interacting with the platform from your own code.

C – Customising

One of the strongest elements of the CRM 2011 is the ease of customising it. In fact, Microsoft pitches it as an xRM solution (anything relationship management) because you could (in theory) customise it completely away from contact management to model any data that is involved in relationships.

These are the levels of customisation available:

  1. Individual users themselves can personalise the interface, changing the language to one of the 41 language packs available, building their own reports or dashboards and constructing and saving their own queries.
  2. The administrator-level tools to build new interfaces, to modify existing ones, to create new data types and their attributes in the system, to create new relationships (one to one, one to many etc.), and to package up these changes as a “solution” file for redeployment is also included within the tool without having to write a single line of code. Very quickly an “out of the box” CRM can be “pimped up” to suit specific data needs.
  3. Javascript, which can access client-side and server-side data, can be hooked into these out of the box modifications to provide greater control.
  4. A large number of third-party development companies, and Microsoft itself, provide pre-built solutions to adapt the CRM for extra needs – these are found on the Microsoft Market Place. Many of these are free and solutions exist, for example, for adapting the CRM for an NGO, health portfolio or a wealth management company. With the NGO plug-in, for instance, the CRM can manage pledges, donations, volunteers and projects.
  5. Finally, code can be written against the API web services that the CRM exposes to interact with the xRM “engine” at its lowest level. In essence, you could chuck away the provided CRM interface completely and build your own application using the xRM core only.

Screenshot of CRM Customisation


Microsoft has invested significant time and effort in the product and has a well-defined road map for its future. The company is releasing regular rollups every three months that add new functionality (such as Twitter-style following feeds), and CRM is likely to remain a strong contender as a base upon which other solutions can be built quickly and cheaply.

References - Swiss CRM home page. - Microsoft CRM team blog. - xRM user group. - Microsoft Dynamics Community online. – CRM Certifications. – CRM 2011 SDK.

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About the author

Kevin Crampton
Kevin Crampton