Chip off the beta block

UCS Forest Group is going where many organizations have gone before — and failed. In an effort to keep better tabs on its diverse customer base, the Mississauga, Ont.-based distributor of specialty forest products will implement a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

But the company

isn’t looking to any of the established CRM players; instead it is placing its money on a relative newcomer in this space: Microsoft. A group of about eight beta testers at UCS — a general manager, a sales manager as well as inside and outside sales representatives — have been using the product, which made its official debut earlier this month, for almost a year. The company is now preparing to launch a full-blown implementation throughout its North American operation, which consists of three Canadian offices and two in the U.S.

UCS is using CRM to analyse customers’ buying habits through lead tracking and order tracking. Though the company didn’t conduct a formal return-on-investment analysis, Mike Dabner, UCS’s director of operations, has a clear picture of how the technology will benefit his company. Employees are using it to create vendor profiles, so users across the five offices will be able to provide faster, more accurate quotes to customers.

“”We expect it will help our central purchasing group leverage its buying power,”” he says.

Prior to testing Microsoft’s product, UCS had been using a GoldMine product, but its 50 sales representatives weren’t happy with the overall result.

“”It was a bit of failure,”” says Dabner. “”It was difficult for sales reps to use the product effectively. We ended up using it as just a fancy scheduler.””

UCS looked at other CRM packages, from Siebel and Pivotal, but neither was the right fit.

“”Some of the bigger programs are completely overwhelming, especially for people who aren’t computer literate,”” says Dabner, adding technology has not made huge inroads in the forest products sector and many of the companies UCS does business with don’t own even basic technology such as a fax machine.

UCS is exactly the kind of mid-sized company Microsoft Business Solutions had in mind when it starting building its CRM product three years ago. It wanted to address the needs of companies with 15 to 150 users, says Garth Dean, general manager of Microsoft Business Solutions Canada.

“”This is a largely untapped market in the CRM space,”” says Dean, “”and there’s a lot of pent-up demand for (this type of product).””

But are mid-sized companies Microsoft ready for CRM? Microsoft’s package requires Windows 2000 Server, SQL Server 2000, Active Directory and Internet Explorer 5.5, and the company recommends Exchange Server 2000 and Office 2000 or XP to take full advantage of it.

That could be a challenge, according to Warren Shiau, software analyst with IDC Canada in Toronto, who says the level of infrastructure in most mid-market companies falls short of the requirements for CRM.

“”A lot of mid-

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