Microsoft will start selling its CRM 3.0 package from early December after releasing the public beta of the product earlier this month.
A big plus is integration with Microsoft Outlook, but analysts have advised that despite the improved marketing features and integration with Microsoft Office, there are many more mature customer relationship management alternatives that may offer more features.
Microsoft said its CRM product currently has 150,000 users, and Microsoft is piloting the product internally with plans to roll it out to 10,000 staff.
CRM 3.0 is aimed at medium-sized companies and offers a marketing automation module, including list and campaign management functions, and a sales module that features "quick campaign" creation for sales people. In addition, a new service scheduling module can carry out complex scheduling automatically.
The release includes an improved range of customisation tools, integrates with Microsoft Office and has the ability to export CRM data into Excel files more easily.
Brad Wilson, general manager Microsoft CRM, said, "We have focused not on having the longest list of features, but on things like Outlook integration - the features that people need."
He added that there are some basic CRM features in Outlook - via Microsoft Business Contact Manager - and some embedded CRM capabilities as part of Microsoft Business Solutions' enterprise resource planning products. However, CRM 3.0 represents a more complete system.
"The embedded CRM in these ERP products will appeal to some industries where they know their 200 customers and CRM is not a high priority. Companies looking for increased CRM functionality, while retaining a single-supplier relationship with Microsoft Business Solutions, should move to Microsoft CRM 3.0," said Brian Prentice, research director at analyst firm Gartner.
Among the main criticisms voiced by industry experts is that CRM 3.0 lacks the features of rival products from Onyx Software, SalesLogix and Pivotal.
Another problem is being locked into Microsoft technology. David Bradshaw, principal analyst at Ovum, said, "The close integration with Outlook is a big plus. It will get the sales force to use the CRM system, and this makes adoption and training easier.
"Microsoft is making good progress, and has fairly good facilities, but you are committing yourself to the Microsoft technology stack."
Hosted CRM 3.0 will be an option
Microsoft will include subscription-based licensing options for CRM 3.0, enabling the product to be hosted by third parties, a model popularised by the likes of Salesforce.com.
However, Gartner research director Brian Prentice, said, "A vast gulf separates Microsoft's efforts from those of dedicated hosting companies. For example, Salesforce.com, RightNow and NetSuite are deeply committed to hosting as an exclusive model of business application delivery."
He advised users considering a hosted CRM 3.0 deployment to negotiate their contract at the outset of the agreement, and to ensure the partner does not retain exclusive rights to the data, the provision of migration services or customisations developed by the user.