Microsoft Dynamics CRM Partners: Innovating in the Network

For Microsoft partners to remain relevant, they have to stay on top of Microsoft technology and keep aligned with customers' real needs.

There may be no other industry where all the parts are so continuously moving as in technology. For Microsoft partners to remain relevant in the market, they have to stay ahead of the technology to help customers avoid dead ends and capitalize on new functions. To differentiate themselves from the crowd and replace margin revenue streams, partners must build intellectual capital that adds value to services.

Innovation isn't about bleeding edge. It's about staying relevant as business and technology change.

Innovative partners take all forms from small to large, and can be found across every competency. They've figured out how to develop fresh ideas to keep customers and employees interested and engaged. Being the first or best to market with services or applications that serve specific industries or solve difficult business problems is one way to define an innovative partner. But those who take a new approach to marketing, pioneer a business model or combine services uniquely qualify as well.

And while some partners seem to effortlessly build an enthusiastic, energetic culture, many struggle to keep up with the latest certification tests. What makes the difference?

Microsoft's channel is exceptionally diverse, making it difficult to draw meaningful conclusions across the cacophony of product lines and business models. A deeper dive into a subset of the channel -- partners focused on Microsoft Dynamics CRM -- yields a few broadly applicable takeaways on how partners are finding new ways to ensure their relevance.

The (R)evolution of Dynamics CRM
When Microsoft CRM 1.2 was released in 2003, partners were hesitant to jump aboard. Many enterprise resource planning (ERP) partners had invested time and resources to support Great Plains Siebel Front Office, or GPSFO. Most partners -- and likely Microsoft -- would like to forget that sad chapter in the CRM journey. Platform partners had little exposure to the opportunity in Microsoft CRM, especially with the Great Plains team in Fargo, N.D., spearheading the development.

Fortunately, the product matured with continuing development investment from Microsoft. Even after the first version release cycle, partners and customers recognized additional uses for CRM that had nothing to do with customers. Microsoft Dynamics CRM could be used as a platform to manage relationships with any kind of entity -- from partners and vendors to assets -- and so the term "XRM" was born.

"The CRM product matured into an XRM application because you could customize and create new entities within the system," says Mike Rogers, vice president of business development and marketing for Greenville, S.C.-based Customer Effective Inc. "The platform became more extensible because Microsoft developed the product to become more of an application framework."

With that foundation, partners and customers could spend more time focused on building very specialized applications in a fraction of the development time.

"As the product continues to mature and evolve, we see even more," adds Rogers. "With 2011, Microsoft introduced the concept of solutions management inside CRM. Specifically created for ISVs and companies deploying CRM, it allows them to package up what they've built to be installed on other instances of CRM. It's really opened up the market."

The preferred term, according to Microsoft sources, is now "Extended CRM Applications," which in itself is revolutionary. Who would've thought that Microsoft would ever miss the chance to embed another three-letter acronym into our vocabulary?

The Opportunity
"When we started out with CRM in the 1.2 days, we were focused on companies using it as a sales force automation tool," notes Rogers. "The current CRM platform has created so much more opportunity. Partners and ISVs are creating vertical- and process-focused applications for all kinds of industries."

Microsoft wants to see more innovation coming from partners in the form of Extended CRM Applications. "When you look at CRM and the broad market, like what Salesforce has done with their whole ecosystem, their growth is coming largely from complementary ISV solutions that utilize and leverage their relationship engine," says Doug Kennedy, VP, Microsoft Dynamics partners and support services. "We have several hundred ISVs for CRM ... we need more."

The Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace provides an outlet for partners to leverage Microsoft's Web presence to offer their applications to a wide market. Kennedy promises continued improvements in the Marketplace to help partners monetize innovative solutions reaching vertical and global markets. (Of course, Dynamics isn't the only area where Microsoft is investing in partner marketplaces.)

In addition to the opportunity in selling ISV solutions, partners find Dynamics CRM serves as an entry point that can lead to much more business. "Once you get CRM inside the organization and they see how flexible it is, they always come back," Rogers says. "Customers see the opportunity to replace all the legacy applications they have to support. Dynamics CRM becomes the engine and foundation across the company, including mobility, business intelligence, integration and document management."

Changing Customer Models
The combination of an extensible platform and the opportunity to package customizations creates the perfect storm for innovative solutions. At last year's Microsoft Convergence conference, Dynamics AX was the application platform of choice. This year, Extended CRM Applications had clearly taken the lead as the solution that ISVs and Dynamics partners were betting on for the future.

One of the companies launching an Extended CRM Application at Convergence was WennSoft, a New Berlin, Wis.-based ISV providing operational solutions for asset- and equipment-centric industries. "For the past 16 years we've been built on an ERP platform," explains Jim Wenninger, WennSoft's CEO. "When we were looking at our ‘next big thing,' we wanted the solution to be very global, yet personalizable."

WennSoft evaluated the other ERP solutions, including Dynamics AX, which at the time was Microsoft's preferred application solution platform. Historically, WennSoft had seen its applications deployed in the back office -- the operations side of the business.

Based on its conversations with customers and prospects, the company noticed that the recession had changed the way many were conducting business. Sales and services were leading the organization, looking for new revenue opportunities wherever they could.

"We go out and constantly talk to our customers and ask them how we can help them succeed," Wenninger says. "We need to find out what's changing in their business so we can stay in the position to help them be successful." To keep its developers in touch with customer issues, WennSoft includes them in its annual user conference.

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Based on the changing perspective of its customers, Dynamics CRM was the logical choice of development platform for the WennSoft Evolution application. Serving the same industries as the company's more established Signature product, Evolution was designed and is marketed as an application to keep "the customer at the center of your business." It's interesting to note that Evolution integrates with Microsoft Dynamics AX out of the box, with other ERP integrations to follow.

"Evolution is not a replacement for Signature," Wenninger reiterates. "It's a new product that extends our reach into more industries and different ways of doing that in the market. Both of them have development teams and development plans. Both are going to grow."

WennSoft's approach to looking at its future through its customers' eyes allowed the company to view its business model objectively. It would've been easier to follow the trend of building a historically back-office solution on the ERP foundation. The company made the bet on a different approach with Dynamics CRM.

Innovation at the Edge
When talking about innovation these days, "social" definitely comes to mind. While there are plenty of social CRM applications, Irvine, Calif.-based Neudesic LLC has clearly established its leadership as an innovator on the Microsoft Dynamics CRM and SharePoint platforms.

Neudesic, a managed ISV and systems integrator partner, developed Pulse as an enterprise social collaboration application integrated with SharePoint, Dynamics CRM, Lync and Office 365 (see Figure 1).

[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 1. Neudesic Pulse draws from several Microsoft technologies, including Dynamics CRM, in bringing the social media paradigm into a business setting with an elegant interface.

"Our approach with Neudesic Pulse has been to drive business value by creating a social fabric that enables organizations to leverage their existing investments so that users can be social where and how they choose," says Ramin Vosough, Neudesic's vice president of products.

Validating the depth of the product's development, Forrester Research Inc. identified Neudesic Pulse as a "strong performer" in its latest report on enterprise social software. Pulse rated well compared to four higher-profile competitive vendors including Yammer, Chatter, Socialcast Inc. and Tibbr.

A lofty mission statement sets the tone for Neudesic: "To become the global leader in technology-powered business innovation. We aim to achieve this by assembling the best talent, developing the most innovative products, and offering a comprehensive range of services and solutions to help our customers bridge the gap between what they need and what technology can do."

Parsa Rohani, CEO of Neudesic, believes that Pulse is an innovative solution that also fuels innovation in the companies that use it. "Innovation happens at the edge," Rohani says. Companies that have too many layers between leadership and the people working with customers lose connection to information that can drive the direction of the business.

Whereas e-mail is seen only by the people who receive it, with Pulse people can subscribe to groups, projects and areas of interest to follow developments on any level of detail and any subject of interest. "With Pulse, the president of the company knows more about the company with 500 employees than he did at 50," adds Rohani.

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From Rohani's perspective, the key to turning innovative ideas into market success is discipline. "Innovation without discipline is invention," says Rohani. Building great applications requires a significant commitment of resources and adherence to design and development best practices.

Microsoft's Kennedy agrees with the need for partners to give customers the best experience through product architecture that seamlessly integrates with the underlying solutions. "We're investing more time with user groups and the business advisory councils to dive deeper into the technical and architectural pieces that partners need so their customers are more delighted with the experience of the business solutions," Kennedy says, "which all goes back to engineering."

While most partners have lots of creative ideas, the commitment of resources and continued focus is the challenge. Commitment to good product engineering is the ingredient that takes applications from good to great.

Innovation Takes Many Forms
The Web site of Seattle-based Slalom Consulting proclaims the company's innovative philosophy: "Slalom's research and development group actively incubates emerging technologies. We not only work with the latest ideas -- we invent them."

Recognized at Convergence as one of the top 10 innovative solutions in the Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace, Slalom is changing the way people look at data. Slalom's DealIO is a real-time Dynamics CRM sales dashboard designed to optimize the user experience in viewing sales pipelines and forecasts (see Figure 2). Windows 8-compatible DealIO enhances the visualization of sales data from Dynamics CRM to simplify follow-up for deal managers.

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Figure 2. With DealIO, Slalom Consulting takes the Dynamics CRM experience up a notch for customers by helping them visualize their pipeline through maps and charts.

"While some people live and breathe in CRM, some don't," says Brian Rimmer, Slalom's national CRM solution director. "Our innovation team looked at building a richer user experience. Taking mobile and social together allows people to consume the information in a simplistic and filtered format.

"The point of mobile is not just to shrink the information to a small screen," Rimmer continues. "The point of mobile is to deliver information at the right time so that people can make decisions with whatever device they're using."

Slalom has invested in a user experience team to conduct UI research for clients. One result from that team's work is a retail accelerator that delivers information to the sales floor to guide the sales process based on past purchases and preferences. The application allows store associates to help the customer based on their interests and loyalty benefits. Rimmer adds, "It doesn't look like CRM, but every piece of information is being surfaced from CRM."

Developing new applications isn't the only measure of a partner's innovation. Slalom, a Microsoft National Systems Integrator partner, has taken an innovative approach to attract and retain talent by pioneering a national network of local-office models. Consultants are locally based but can reach out to other Slalom experts who are ready to help -- from across the hall to other Slalom offices, and through national specialized teams.

As John Tobin, Slalom's national general manager, explains, "Our model allows consultants to build long-term relationships with world-class companies in their own local communities across the U.S., eliminating unwanted travel and providing the ability to innovate, seize opportunities and build their expertise in exciting new practice areas."

While most partners are unwilling to post the names and qualifications of any of their employees on their Web sites for fear of recruiters luring their talent away, Slalom proudly posts the names, photos, certifications and hobbies of all of their employees on the company Web site.

"Our motivation comes from our people. The company's success is a direct result of our consultants, and we believe they should be showcased," Tobin notes. "At Slalom we want to celebrate our people, since we are very proud of their hard work and the success they bring the company."

Dabbling with innovation is unlikely to generate the desired results. Leaders of partners who see themselves as innovators must be ready to deliver more than lip service to employees to inspire them. From compensation plans to training to collaboration, development of intellectual capital for the business depends on the enthusiasm of the people doing the work.

The Field Testers
The partner channel is Microsoft's strongest asset in large part because partners are nimble and willing to take risks. As the field testers of the research and development that Microsoft invests in business solutions, partner grit builds customer adoption. While that may sound like an onerous place to be, there's a legion of enthusiastic partners who take tremendous pleasure in solving customer problems. There's no place they would rather be.

While there's no play book or formula that will transform a reactive business into a proactive, innovative business, there are common threads that lead to success:

  • Build relevant solutions by understanding the customer perspective and solving issues unique to industries and roles.
  • To move solutions from idea to market requires focus and commitment of resources.
  • Innovation is an immersive experience, and not for part-timers.

We've looked at just a few examples of Microsoft Dynamics CRM partners who embrace innovation, but there are many more on every platform. Dynamics AX, SharePoint and Windows Azure all are inspiring partners to anticipate customer needs and build their business by finding new uses for evolving applications.


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