ORLANDO — Microsoft will build its position in the customer relationship management market by offering sofware for mobile devices like PDAs, executives told its annual Convergence customer solutions conference Monday.

The software company’s plans follow the release of Microsoft Business Solutions

CRM 1.2 last December, technology that allows sales reps at the smallest doctors’ offices or huge manufacturing facilities to review and collect data linked to customer meetings.

Microsoft’s strategy against its well-entrenched competitors is to pursue mid-market firms — those with an employee base of 25 to 500 people — and departments in larger organizations, said Krista Kuehnbaum, CRM product manager at Microsoft Canada in Mississauga, Ont. She added the company already has more than 1,600 worldwide customers and 700 partners of its CRM solutions.

Many large CRM vendors, which have sold systems to equally big customers over the years, are struggling because they don’t know how to cater to mid-market firms, said Steve Poelking, an analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto. He said CRM providers are also finding that buyers want to gravitate to one strong platform.

This is an opportunity for Microsoft to step up to the plate because software buyers are looking for stability, added Michelle Warren, an analyst at Evans Research in Toronto. For example, when Microsoft in 2000 bought Great Plains Software, in a move to help smaller firms become more efficient by automating connected business processes, it sent the message: “”‘We’re going to keep this. We’re going to put some money behind this. It’s not going to go away,'”” she said.

Options Software & Consulting Inc. of Burlington, Ont., a Microsoft partner, jumped in early into Microsoft’s beta process, said president Dave Savel. “”In our pipeline, at least 75 per cent of accounts have interest in CRM products,”” he said. The range of clients now using CRM varies from firms with 25 users to ones with 300.

One client is The Orthotic Group, a Markham, Ont.-based custom foot care company that’s been using CRM 1.0 since last April. The firm was looking for a way to track the customer service activity of its 34-strong mobile sales force as it visited physicians’ offices, said Chris Patten, vice-president of IT.

As a result of the implementation, “”customer service reps and account reps (are) on the same page. Now we record every contact we have with a customer. Everyone has equal access to information,”” and we can therefore serve customers more accurately, Patten said.

Some of the challenges the Orthotic Group faced revolved around connecting the back and front offices, said Patten. “”There’s not a great audit trail”” in the event of an integration failure, he said of the first version. But the strong Microsoft brand name, as well as the large investment and developer teams behind the firm’s CRM products, has been reassuring to him. Despite these initial problems, Patten is considering CRM 1.2 and CRM Mobile.

Last year, the size of the CRM market in Canada was about $193 million, compared to a $6-billion software market and a $450-million enterprise resource planning software sector, according to IDC Canada’s Poelking. “”It’s a promising market for a lot of people,”” he said, and added CRM is growing at a clip of four per cent to 4.5 per cent, with about 56 per cent of firms of more than 100 employees reporting they’ve got a system in place.

IDC Canada anticipates this year roughly 30 per cent of Canadian companies will buy CRM or enhance their existing solutions, and the remainder plans no additions or is undecided. But for those planning to buy extra software or replace what they have, the key factor is establishing a quick return on investment given today’s tight budgets, Poelking explained.

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