Hosted CRM

Microsoft's Dynamics CRM 3.0 has been the talk of the CRM town for some time now but was only launched at the end of March 2006 and is the newest player in the hosted CRM market. Aspective is one of the first companies to offer the hosted service in the UK, charging per user, per month with 24/7 support available as well.

It's not much of a surprise to find that you need Internet Explorer to connect to Aspective's CRM platform; it's a Microsoft product after all. Once connected the site will close your initial browser Window and open up one without any navigation furniture, so it looks and behaves just like a desktop application. You'll need to make sure that you allow JavaScript to run as this is a rather effective AJAX-style application which owes a lot to the latest version of Outlook Web Access. The advantage of this is that its Office look-and-feel will be very familiar to your employees and hence there's a relatively shallow learning curve.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM takes a role-based approach and users start with a view of current activities. Calendar tools allow quick navigation from day to day, while a refresh button loads any new tasks that may have been assigned while you're working with your current view. Annoyingly the site doesn't dynamically update views, so you may wind up becoming over-familiar. The standard Workplace view can be switched between record types.

The application is built around five different modules. You'll spend most of your time in the Workplace module working with different activities and collaborating with other users in your team. A sales module focuses on handling information about leads and customer relationships. The service module handles customer service issues, while the marketing module contains tools to help with coordinating marketing campaigns. Different classes of users can be given different views, with different selections of modules, and each module contains a selection of side tabs, which expose different types of record - from leads to available sales literature.

You can quickly switch between these different views and modules, and performance over a reasonably loaded DSL connection was good. Filters allow you to choose what you're viewing, and help to keep scrolling to a minimum. Records are held in forms, which can easily be edited using online design tools. You can also create your own views, customising the system to work the way your business works.

Email messages to customers are sent using a hosted copy of Microsoft Exchange. Interactions between accounts can also be managed and there are tools here to allow you to link relationships between your customers. As well as offering tools for tracking customers and interactions, including lead and opportunity management, you can use the Microsoft Dynamics CRM platform to manage marketing and field service cases.

One key difference between Microsoft's offering and the rest of the CRM space is that this is a hybrid solution, which can quickly be moved back to your own site and your own servers, or quickly set up using data from an existing Microsoft CRM platform. It's an appropriate model for outsourcing, as it allows you to hand over a fully running service or bring a service back in house with minimal downtime.

Getting started is easy enough. You can use a bulk import wizard to bring in records from any delimited text file to quickly populate the site database. If you're moving from spreadsheets to CRM, then you'll be able to get your data in shape very quickly. Custom roles and fields can be added, and templates and forms customised. The current version of Microsoft Dynamics has only a basic concept of workflow, but specific tasks can be assigned to different users. Those after more complex workflow handling will need to either choose another service or wait until the next release, which will use Microsoft's upcoming Windows Workflow Foundation technologies.

If you want to get a feel for how it works, Aspective has an online demonstration site you can play around with - it's populated with data and ready to go. But it's also worth checking with other service providers as well. Microsoft's strategy is to offer the hosted version of Dynamics CRM 3.0 to many different SLAs so you may be able to get a better deal if you shop around.

Aimed squarely at small and medium sized businesses, the hosted version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM 3.0 is ideal for businesses that want to quickly get up and running with a full-blown CRM solution. A familiar Windows-style user interface and a task-centric approach make getting going relatively simple and integration with Outlook and other Office tools mean that it works well with your existing business tools.


A plucky newcomer, Microsoft's Dynamics CRM 3.0 still has some catching up to do. However it's in a good position to do so very quickly