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Open for business: a Dynamics CRM app store that *could* replace Dynamics Marketplace

January 6, 2014

Dynamics Marketplace in the sitemapIf you recall, when Microsoft released Dynamics CRM 2011 in February, 2011, it included an integration to the Microsoft Pinpoint site for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, affectionately labeled Dynamics Marketplace within the CRM application.  Although intended to become a dynamic (get it?) catalog of add-ons, services, and solution providers, it’s been almost three years and the marketplace hasn’t really caught on.  If I had to pinpoint (get it?) the problems with the Dynamics Marketplace, I’d pin it on the following issues:

  • It is not actively curated, neither by Microsoft nor by the community.  On the Most Popular tab, the entry with the most reviews has 15; the next runner-up has 5 and it drops from there.
  • The process to purchase or deploy a solution to your Dynamics CRM server is very manual – there is no click-to-purchase or click-to-deploy capability and no centralized payment or licensing system, so you have to deal with each vendor individually.
  • It is up to individual vendors to support trial or demo options… and not all do.

Clearly, there is some room for improvement here, but this is not a high priority area for Microsoft – Dynamics CRM 2013 continues to show the same catalog of solutions and service providers, with no attention spent on enhancing the experience for CRM administrators.

While doing some research for a customer, I stumbled upon Prodware and their CRM App Store.  Like the Pinpoint site, the CRM App Store exists as a web-based catalog of Dynamics CRM solutions, but that’s where the similarity ends.  On their blog, I read about the Tax Calculation solution, clicked on the link for the product page, and clicked on the link to Try – I was redirected to a site where I could either request information about Dynamics CRM or download the CRM App Store managed solution (an integration that puts the online catalog right inside Dynamics CRM for an administrator to discover and deploy new CRM add-on packages).  I decided to give the whole system a test drive and here is what I found out:

  • CRM App StoreWhen navigating the app store, you might get a sense that it is familiar – the developers modeled the app store after the Windows 8 Store.
  • The solutions appear to be heavily biased toward a single publisher called FocusLive.  It’s not clear what FocusLive’s relationship is with Prodware, but there is definitely a link – the FocusLive website links to the same app store as Prodware, including a listing on the Microsoft Dynamics Marketplace Pinpoint site.
  • Other solutions all appear to be paid offerings, most likely sold through Prodware as a channel partner.
  • The deployment process is fairly smooth.  I pushed the app store into a Dynamics CRM 2013 demo server and was able to navigate the catalog of solutions.  After selecting the Tax Calculation solution, the app store assisted me in deploying the solution directly to my CRM instance with no manual download required; the app store did, however, also need to deploy the App Store License and FocusLive Framework solutions in advance of the actual solution I was deploying.
  • Tax Calculation solution listing (after deployment)Installed Applications (in CRM App Store)The app store allows me to filter to just the solutions I have deployed, as well as statistics about each deployed solution – as an administrator, that makes it easy for me to track licenses and expiration dates, as well as if updates exist.
  • In full disclosure, I haven’t tried deploying a paid solution, so I can’t speak to the experience of payment processing and licensing.
  • I received emails when I registered, when I confirmed my account, and when I deployed the Tax Calculation solution.  Seemed like just the right amount of email – not pushy, but clearly there if I needed additional guidance.
  • CRM App Store in sitemapThe app store shows up as a top-level area in the new CRM 2013 navigation.
    If it was my call, I would have tucked it away in the Settings area, as a custom sub-area, rather than bulk up the root-level of the sitemap.  Call me a purist, but I like a very minimalist root-level on my CRM sitemap.

Considering that this is the first Dynamics CRM app store that I have seen, Focuslive and/or Prodware did a nice job creating a first-generation product to help CRM administrators automate the deployment and management of CRM solutions for their end-users.  I wish them well with this endeavor – it would be great to see a comprehensive catalog/app store for Dynamics CRM administrators.

Signals by HubSpot – find out when your critical emails are seen

December 30, 2013

Are you familiar with the “read receipt” feature of Microsoft Outlook?  Essentially, you check off a box that says you want to be notified when the recipient opens the email.  Sounds great, right?  In theory, it’s awesome, but in practice, recipients may not use a mail reader that supports the notifications or, if it does, they can often choose to suppress the read receipt.  Not so useful if you want confirmation of either receipt or viewing.

I just found out this week that HubSpot – a major player in the marketing automation space – has produced a tool called Signals by HubSpot, a 21st-century read receipt.  It integrates with Outlook (including Outlook Web Access!), Gmail, Apple Mail (OS X 10.8 and 10.9), and Outlook.com, allowing you to selectively track emails; when the recipient opens the email, you are alerted in the Google Chrome Desktop Notifier and the Google Chrome Browser Plug-in.  If you are a HubSpot customer or use Salesforce.com, you can enable integration to those platforms as well.

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After taking some time to explore the solution, I do see some pros and cons that I have shared below.  This tool is by no means panacea, but it’s a great start to empowering individual sales and service personnel to track one-to-one and one-to-few emails with minimal effort.

Pros

  • Integrates with a variety of major email platforms, including Outlook Web Access
  • Free starter tier allows individual to adopt and use, without need to call in IT or start paying
  • Installation was fast and easy – the hardest thing I had to do was close Outlook (and I was prompted!)
  • Notifications can show up on my desktop and/or in my browser, so I’ll see them regardless of where I am currently working

Cons

  • Requires Google Chrome browser
  • Doesn’t allow users to easily see a list of emails that have been sent with tracking but not yet opened, only the notifications once the emails have been opened
  • Doesn’t integrate with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, the major CRM platform that goes head-to-head with Salesforce.com
  • Tracking can’t currently be enabled from mobile email clients on phones and tablets

All in all, Signals by HubSpot is a decent email-tracking starter kit that a salesperson or service representative could use to get proof of email opening and link clicking, without ruffling feathers in the IT or marketing department.  The support forum is full of great feedback on ways to enhance the tool, and it appears to be monitored actively by HubSpot staff, so I expect to see more good things coming in this product down the road.  If you are using Signals, or are inspired to do so by my post, let me know what you think of it in the comments section, below.


That said, based on my daily role, I would love to see the Salesforce.com integration duplicated for Microsoft Dynamics CRM, showing sales pipeline and lead management notifications without any custom add-ons.  I would also like the Microsoft Dynamics CRM product team to take a page from HubSpot’s playbook and add Outlook Web Access integration for manual email-tracking – I’ve found a Microsoft Connect feedback post on the subject of CRM tracking from OWA – feel free to vote it up if you agree.

CRM Santa brought me something really nice!

December 25, 2013

OK, so I’m not a huge fan of the way the holidays are currently practiced in the States; I’m particularly fond of the ideals expressed in Krista Tippett’s post Why I Don’t Do Christmas.  However, if presented with a gift, I will graciously accept it.  In the case of the CRM 2013 Quick View Menu, I will do so with gusto.

I first discovered this little gem about a week ago, thanks to my colleague Blake, who shared the post at MSCRM Bing’d.  At first glance, I knew this was a gift – an enhanced navigation for the (relatively) newly-released Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013.  Since CRM 2013 sports a radically new navigation, which moved the static, left-hand sitemap to a floating drop-down, it’s taken me a bit of time to get the hang of the new layout.  The Quick View Menu serves to ameliorate my challenge by providing an on-screen visual of the sitemap.  Since the sitemap displays in a flow layout, I can see everything at once, versus the need to scroll with my finger or awkwardly position my mouse at the end of the navigation.

The best part is that this is an open source project, so we may see quick iteration through the slated improvements.  In the brief time that I’ve been aware of this project, the cross-browser testing and support has already been integrated.  This is a tool that is definitely finding a place in my demo toolbox.  If you or your users are struggling at all with the new navigation in CRM 2013, definitely try out the Quick View Menu (download).

CRM 2013 Sitemap (Before)

The native experience for the Dynamics CRM 2013 sitemap

CRM 2013 Sitemap (After)

The experience for the Dynamics CRM 2013 sitemap with the Quick View Menu solution

Do More With Less: The Best Free Tools and Add-Ons for Microsoft Dynamics CRM

December 3, 2013

I’m in Manhattan today for the CRMUG New York event, presenting this session, so it was time to revamp this blog post that I previously posted at the Sonoma Partners blog.

Don’t get me wrong… I love getting paid. However, with the economy still lackluster and IT budgets quite tight, CRM administrators are feeling the pressure to get creative. Thankfully, there are a lot of great free tools and utilities available for administering and enhancing Microsoft Dynamics CRM… if you know where to look. Clearly, you do and that is why you are here. Below, I have indexed a short list of useful tools and enhancements for Dynamics CRM that you can get for the most excellent price of $0 (also available for £0, €0 or ¥0, depending on currency of choice).

While I acknowledge that there are plenty of other free tools out there, these are the short list that I find the most useful across projects and customers.

Administration

  • SiteMap Editor for Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 (Tanguy Touzzard) – Microsoft used to offer a managed solution for editing the sitemap.  That page is down, so this is my first runner-up solution.  The application provides a tree structure and a simple form, so you can choose site map elements and edit their most common properties. Much cleaner than editing XML!
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  • Ribbon Workbench for Dynamics CRM 2011 (Develop1) – Like the site map editor, above, this is a great tool to put in your belt. Also deployed as a managed solution and exposing a configuration page as the user interface, Ribbon Workbench makes ribbon modifications and enhancements substantially easier than manually editing XML (i.e. the old way).
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  • Sonoma Partners Dynamic Forms Community Edition (Sonoma Partners) – Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2013 introduced the new Business Rules feature for managing dynamic form automation without code.  If you are still on CRM 2011, that’s not a native feature, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get it for free. Check out Dynamic Forms – you define rules that have conditions and actions to manage common form behaviors. NOTE: Requires CRM 2011 UR8 or higher.image
  • Diagnostics Tool for Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 (Tanguy Touzzard) – If you used the CRM 4.0 Diagnostics Tool, you will find this very familiar. Not only does it make it easy to toggle tracing on and off when troubleshooting user issues, the tool also provides additional ways to capture meaningful server details that can be reviewed directly or shared with your IT department or Microsoft Support.
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  • CRM Trace Log Viewer (Stunnware) – An excellent companion to the diagnostics tool (above), Stunnware’s Trace Log Viewer turns trace files – those horrible streams of meaningless gibberish – into human-readable log files that can be productively analyzed for useful system insights.
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Application Enhancements

  • Sonoma Partners Universal Search for Dynamics CRM 2011 and 2013 (Sonoma Partners) – Ever since the early days of Dynamics CRM, one glaring omission was a means to easily search across tables when you don’t know the entity type of a record that you are seeking. We saw a need for a simple, free tool to empower user-driven universal search and this was the result. Tapping into existing configuration, like system views, Universal Search is an easily-deployed, quickly appreciated managed solution. NOTE: Dynamics CRM 2013 does introduce cross-entity search, but it’s only available in the MoCA mobile solution (see below), so this solution can augment that experience as well.
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  • Sonoma Partners Editable Grid (Sonoma Partners) – Do you ever wish Dynamics CRM offered inline grid editing capabilities like you can get in Excel? Sonoma Partners has created a free solution for Dynamics CRM 2011 that can turn your existing views into editable grids, with just the click of a button.image
  • CRM Workflow Manipulation Library (Carlton Colter/Engage) – Carlton Colter’s workflow manipulation library augments the native workflow activity options with a slew of additional capabilities, ranging from date manipulation to string manipulation and even to complex math capabilities to enable more powerful workflows for administrators and power users
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  • Customer Portal for Microsoft Dynamics CRM 2011 (Microsoft) – Although the reviews slam the customer portal, I have found it to be a great starter application. If your organization needs to provide a web portal that surfaces CRM data and makes it available to non-CRM users – customers, partners, employees – this is a great foundation. Once deployed, this portal is a content management system (CMS) that can be edited in real-time and administered through the CRM application.image

Mobile

  • MoCA and Espresso (Microsoft) – Free and available out of the box, Microsoft’s native mobile apps for tablets and phones for Dynamics CRM 2013 are a great lightweight offering if you are just beginning to dabble in mobile empowerment for your work force. Easy to configure – enable entities for tablet and phone with a checkbox, then customize the standard form for the entity – this free option is an excellent starter mobile experience for your connected users.
  • Resco MobileCRM (Resco) – Resco offers a compelling off-the-shelf mobile solution that takes your users well beyond Mobile Express. The app can be downloaded from all of the major app stores – Apple, Android, Windows Phone, Windows 8 – and provides a rich native app experience that takes advantage of the respective capabilities of each platform. Think of it as CRM on your mobile device. NOTE: The app is free on the app stores, which is why I showcase it here; however, if you want to customize the app – reconfigure the options, enable custom entities, write your own code – you have to license the configuration or development tools.
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  • EZ Opp for Microsoft Dynamics CRM (Sonoma Partners) – EZ Opp was designed to be a free app to make it easy for salespeople to do two things: update their sales opportunities and get the insight they need to close those opportunities as won. A novel, and simple-to-use, touch interface makes it easy for salespeople to drag their opportunity “bubbles” around on a grid to change the probability, opportunity size and expected close date. By drilling into an opportunity, the salesperson gets a full view of the opportunity, including sales stage progress, open and closed activities, wall posts, related opportunities and more.
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Running a successful mobility pilot

November 6, 2013

The second session I presented at CRMUG Summit was more of a How-To for project leads and system administrators, with a focus on how to pilot mobility within their organization.  I got the opportunity to dust off my PMP certification and focus on real-world challenges that a project manager might face when charged with leading a mobility initiative, particularly if it’s intended to mobilize CRM.

Because everyone loves numbered lists, I prepared a five-step list to guide the audience through a mobile pilot.  I left the slides for the session intentionally spartan, so that we could focus on the high-level steps and let the needs of the audience members come through during the session.  Since we’re on a very different medium here, I’ll elaborate on each of the steps involved in running a successful mobility pilot.

  1. Identify the audience and device(s) – As George Harrison once sang, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.”  At this early stage of your pilot, start to identify where you are going.  Do you have a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) strategy or is there a corporate standard?  Essentially, what device(s) will you need to support? Similarly, who will be the participants of the mobile pilot?  Sales, service, marketing, HR, etc?  Once you know the targeted users and device(s), you can progress to the next step.
  2. Define use-cases and design the experience – Once you know the target users and device(s), you can start to identify the problems or use-cases the app will address. This stage is often very research-oriented, with requirement gathering at the forefront. After you have established use-cases, the actual design can begin. Like any other software project, wireframing and storyboarding will be the techniques to get you through the design stage.
  3. Configure or develop a prototype – By the time you get to this stage, you should know who is using the app, on what device(s), what it will do, and how it will look. You’re ready to hand the functional specification to the project team or vendor to actually build the application. Once complete, you can deploy to the pilot users for testing.
  4. Simulate real-world conditions – At first glance, you may think that this stage is optional; after all, how can you simulate real-world conditions with a prototype app deployed to a subset of the ultimate user base? The tests won’t scale for performance-testing, so think of this as the opportunity to validate your use-cases and design; rather than providing access to the app in a lab-like environment, put it on your users’ devices and let them run it against real data, either in a test CRM environment or, if possible, a production system, so they can get a true sense of how the app will help them. NOTE: be sure to work out bugs before you run the app against a production system.
  5. Review your findings and iterate – After your users get some time to explore the app in context, bring them all together or survey them to find out what they like and dislike about the app. If time allows, incorporate their feedback and pilot one or more revisions to hone the app into the ideal solution for your team.

Those are the steps I recommend to run a mobility pilot. From a technical level, there is a lot more involved, so I may serve that up as a separate post. If you want to see that elaboration, say so in the comments – with enough positive feedback, I’ll feel pressured to satisfy my readers 🙂

Users Want a Great Experience

November 4, 2013

Two weeks back, I had the pleasure of presenting two topics to the participants of the CRM User Group Summit in Tampa, Florida. The first shares the same title as this blog post – Users Want a Great Experience (abbreviated UWGE, pronounced ooh-gee, like what you say when presented with a great user experience). My intent for the session was to promote good user experience and design practices, showcase a continuum of custom UIs that enhance a CRM system, and provide some simple tips and suggestions that any CRM administrator could apply to their system to enhance their users’ experiences with minimal cost or time invested.

In preparation for the session, I met with Mike Niebling, one of Sonoma Partners‘ user experience designers. He helped me take the concept I had and turn it into a streamlined experience of its own, leveraging screenshots and ideas from some custom interfaces that we’ve developed for our customers in the most recent two years. In lieu of attempting to reproduce the session I delivered, I’ve opted to share the interface screenshots with detailed descriptions. I hope you find this valuable – in addition, since you may have come across other innovative user interfaces or experiences for CRM, I encourage you to share them below, in the comments section.

For the sake of the session, I defined the continuum by scope of use case addressed, ranging from enhance a simple task on the far left, through simplify a complex task, all the way to address multiple tasks within one experience. I’ve organized the examples as they would fall on the continuum, from left to right, so you can get a better idea of what type of use case(s) they address.

  • Appointment Scheduler – An example of enhancing a simple task, the appointment scheduler is a custom element that we added to the Appointment form. The customer managed a significant volume of appointments and frequently used a delegate to schedule appointments for agents. They opted to use CRM as the system of record for calendaring, which helped with discoverability, but still required several clicks to confirm agent and customer availability. With the appointment scheduler enhancement, agents and delegates could see at a glance whether the appointment slot was available, without the need to open multiple windows or do mental arithmetic with multiple time zones.

    Appointment Scheduler for Dynamics CRM

    In-line customization on the Appointment form in Dynamics CRM to allow faster, easier scheduling by a delegate

  • Custom Dialogs – A more complex example than Appointment Scheduler, custom dialogs extend an existing UX model in the CRM system – the native dialog. Custom dialogs, however, were needed to allow for dynamic choices, complex branching logic, and the ability to span multiple entities – all tasks that native dialogs don’t support. With Dynamics CRM 2013, Microsoft introduced customizable business process flows and portable business logic (PBL), native features that serve to address the same challenges that we had to overcome with the custom dialog almost two years ago.

    Custom Dialogs for Dynamics CRM 2011

    With custom dialogs, we mimicked the native dialog experience, and extended it with cross-entity access and a scriptable UI.

  • ExactTarget Unsubscription Manager – Continuing further down the spectrum, we have the example of the ExactTarget Unsubscription Manager, a desktop application that addresses a use case that can reside externally to the CRM and email systems: a tool to manage the synchronization between the two systems. The subscription manager allows a user to easily see data from both systems and use a combination of automated logic and manual evaluation to address conflicts in subscription data. Although this could conceivably have been implemented inside either CRM or ExactTarget, by developing the tool as a stand-alone app, users have a more flexible experience and are not bound by performance or bandwidth limitations of either platform, improving the user experience.

    ExactTarget Unsubscription Analyzer

    The ExactTarget Unsubscription Analyzer is a good case study for an application that can introduce a new experience to manage two disparate systems – in this case, Dynamics CRM and ExactTarget.

  • New Belgium Ultimate Beer Ranger – Far to the right on the continuum, we find the New Belgium Ultimate Beer Ranger, a mobile application that was designed to bring together multiple use-cases into a single streamlined experience on a standard device. As such, both hardware and software play a role in creating this user experience, which benefits from touch, geolocation, camera, and internet connectivity. Beer rangers using this application on a Windows 8 device have a rich user experience, as evidenced by the inline video.

An open letter to thank my Extra Life donors

November 3, 2013

While everyone begins their recovery from Extra Life 2013 – the 24 25-hour video game-playing marathon fundraiser – I prepared to write my thank-you letter for all of my friends and family who gave generously in support of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital (my fundraising recipient). I always raise for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, in thanks for the tremendous work they did for my niece. This year, with an intent to raise awareness of the mission and success of Extra Life, I’ve decided to publish the letter openly on this blog.

Dear supporters,

This was my second year as a fundraiser for Extra Life, a charity event run by Children’s Miracle Network on behalf of their network of children’s hospitals. With your support, I was able to raise $1502 – a solid $2 above my audacious $1500 goal this year; to put it in perspective, I barely raised half of that last year. As a team, The Sonomans raised a whopping $4297 – $1097 above our thrice-increased team goal!

Unlike last year when I was just a team member, this year I took on the role of team captain, recruiting team members and encouraging them in their fundraising efforts. Not only did we put together a team of 11 Sonomans (over 10% of our company), we also hosted the gaming event in our Chicago office and had a great day day of gaming on Saturday, with a breakfast of champions (Dunkin’ Donuts) and a Chicago gamer’s dinner (Giordano’s pizza). I want to especially thank Mike Snyder for offering our office space for the occasion and sponsoring the pizzas and Corey O’Brien for rallying the team and bringing the doughnuts. Additional thanks to Brendan Landers for his delicious guacamole and Meghan Ansbach for her plethora of marshmallow goodness. As you can imagine, we were nothing if not well-fed.

We had a special opportunity this year that I want to be sure to note. Diablo provided a $120,000 donation and Team Extra Life decided to turn it into a fundraising game called the Diablo Extra Life Challenge, offering large grants to the hospitals that had the Most Raised Dollars, the Most Dollars Per Capita, and the Most Improved over last year. In the final week, it became clear that Cincinnati Children’s Hospital was a strong contender for most improved. With some generous end-game donations from you, my supporters, we helped clinch that title and earned an extra $20k for Cincinnati Children’s Hospital – I could not be more pleased. FYI – if the same challenges are available next year, I’m going to aim for the Most Raised 😀

In closing, thank you for your tremendous support. With your help, we exceeded my individual and our team’s goal, and Extra Life closed with over $3.4 million dollars raised!

Warm regards,
Jacob