The heart of the changes coming to Dynamics CRM focus around a re-imagined application layer and interface that Patterson believes need to come into line with the new generation of business users accustomed to streamlined apps and lots of easily surfaced data. The CRM team will attack this goal with work on accentuating improvements in areas like structured and un-structured search, machine learning, smarter integration of CRM entities in the UI, and a more seamless experience within other improving parts of the Microsoft landscape like Windows 8 and Office.
"We will focus on differentiated scenarios," Patterson said. "We will be fusing the walls and seams of our applications together."
Some of the specific improvements that will be coming in the next three service updates include an updated browser interface, starting with sales functionality, that is aimed at removing popups, integrating data from different entities, and beginning to reduce the visibility of the ubiquitous ribbon interface.
Another key change is the move toward what Patterson described as a process-driven UI, starting with sales and service process flows. "We want to pioneer a new way to work," he said. The user experience in general will move to align with Office 15 and Metro to "tie into the best of where Microsoft is going from a design perspective…We are focusing less on activities and more on outcomes. Today CRM tells you have to do work; tomorrow it should tell you how to get work done."
The Fall 2012 release
The next planned release, now called the Fall 2012 release, has features that Microsoft categorizes among the areas of Experiences, Application, and Platform. Experience-related features include the delayed cross-browser and CRM Mobile capabilities, as well as Office 15 compatibility and the beginning of a new process-driven UI that Patterson demonstrated. The release will also include application enhancements in opportunity management and case management, along with platform-related enhancements in service monitoring, analytics, bulk data load, and multi-instance support.
The updates to the browser interface will begin in the Fall 2012 release, Patterson said, as select browser-based elements are reworked with an eye toward guiding sales reps through the management of their leads with a more holistic view of relevant entities displayed in the context of process.
A preview of the updated view of a Lead in Dynamics CRM coming in Fall 2012
"CRM is getting some logic," Patterson promised the audience. By logic, he seemed to be referring to putting more thought into aligning with the way sales reps work, or perhaps should work, in their CRM system. For example, making a phone call directly from the lead information is nice, but entering call notes should also include the immediate ability to schedule a follow up activity without changing screens. And lead information should include a view of all stakeholders at the lead's organization, as well as visibility of competitors for the deal.
In other words, the CRM team is looking to create one seamless flow that gets away from the idea of creating and clicking through various entities with related pop up windows. Patterson called out pop-ups more than once as a liability to Dynamics CRM, saying it has cost partners some important deals.
But Patterson qualified the demo with a note of caution, saying, "We're learning as we go [with] this paradigm…this is about building a great sales application."
Winter 2013 release and the Metro app preview
After the Fall 2012 release, a Winter 2013 release – meaning between January and March 2013 – will continue the Office 15 enhancements, along with more process-driven UI. The big introduction in the Winter 2013 release will be a preview of new Metro CRM app. Re-imaging Dynamics CRM in Metro is "about taking what we know about information and putting it on its head," said Patterson. "We need to innovate to deliver the right kinds of experiences and that's what we're excited to do in our Winter release."
The sales overview page in the Metro app preview
The Dynamics CRM team is looking for something profound in a Windows 8 native Metro app, by their own account. In a demonstration, Patterson showed off flow-oriented refresh for sales functionality. A touch interface moved the user between opportunities, tasks, and sales funnel visualizations while minimizing the need to click through to new screens.. The demonstration focused on interface choices designed for better alignment with real working needs, like intuitive ways to build and view a sales team around the right roles, as well as a holistic view of an opportunity that shows an activity feed, sales data, activities, and team information in a stripped down, Metro-style interface.
Managing a sales team across multiple roles in the Metro app
Viewing an opportunity in the Dynamics CRM Metro app demonstration
One of the most intriguing aspects of the Metro approach is the potential for a responsive UI that broadens the applicability of a single interface across multiple form factors. If the approach can be extended to more areas of the product and out of the native Windows 8 app and into the browser, mobile, and tablet devices, it could become a replacement to multiple mobile apps somewhere down the road.
New investment in marketing automation, other areas coming
The road ahead for Dynamics CRM will also include new investments in marketing automation, sales automation, customer care, and interaction management. Patterson called out marketing automation as one of the biggest opportunities for a Microsoft investment. "We want to help our customers drive more engagement either on their own web sites or through social media. It's an area that we haven't touched for some time," he acknowledged but it will receive renewed attention.
One option for a marketing automation investment could be the acquisition of one of the existing players in the marketing automation space, most of whom have grown quickly in the Dynamics CRM space in the last two years. With the CoreMotives acquisition earlier this year by SilverPop, ClickDimensions stands out as a strong candidate if Microsoft chooses to go the acquisition route due to its total focus on Dynamics CRM and its Azure pedigree. Another player yet to be acquired is SalesFusion, although they are not a pure Dynamics shopw – they also integrate with Salesforce, Sage, and SugarCRM.
Asking the hard questions on competitiveness
Microsoft's competitiveness in CRM is in question, and the product's second place stature in the market won't change without a significant shift toward identifying and capitalizing on new areas of competitive advantage. And Patterson wants to win. He discussed a range of changes in the marketplace that are negatively affecting Dynamics CRM wins today, including feature gaps in RFPs, feedback from old and new users, and even interviews with customers of competitor CRM solutions.
Patterson spent a good deal of time explaining his view on the meaning of platforms as they apply within Microsoft. It's a term and an idea that can be both a competitive advantage and a hindrance to product development. For example, integration of technology from acquisitions like Skype, Yammer, and Windows 8 seem to be at the top of the list for important new competitive differentiators, but there is less interest in investing R&D resources in thinking about more "platform" aspects of the present or future Dynamics CRM solution.
"Don't ask what's new in the developer API, ask what's new in sales automation. We're not competing to do a better job in Azure or Sharepoint. The direction of the CRM team is to provide great CRM solutions," he told the audience.
Patterson says he hears stories of customers from the competition being delighted by the user experience they receive, but in Dynamics CRM the feelings apparently diverge among the generations – older workers seem to be quite happy the with the path Dynamics CRM has taken in Outlook and the web browser, but Gen Y workers looking for more of an app feel in terms of responsiveness, design, and ease of use.
In the end, Patterson's vision is to put an emphasis on making the tools of Dynamics CRM more competitive through whatever means necessary, not gilding the lily of today's Dynamics CRM. For example, whereas Outlook integration has been one of the bread and butter selling points of Dynamics CRM for the past few years, Patterson sees that advantage fading or already gone as competitors have worked to offer their own Outlook integration. So his search has apparently led the DYnamics CRM team to the technology that Microsoft is differentiating on now – things like better user experience through the Metro look and feel, smarter interaction between user and tool, and rapid adoption of key technologies like Yammer, Skype, and Windows 8.
As for the miss on R8, Patterson summed it up as a basic quality issue and a bitter pill to swallow for partners who had deals hinging on the delivery of the new features. "Mobility & cross browser are strategic bets," he began, "but we are not in the place we wanted to be [this close to the release]. TAP early adopters and at this point we are not satisfied with the level of feedback or with the level of deficiencies in the product at this late point the cycle.