Microsoft Convergence 2013: Crossing the 'T's; dotting the 'I's

Microsoft Convergence 2013 wasn't flashy; it wasn't mind blowing or even super energetic, though it had enough energy. But it was important to be there, to understand what Microsoft was doing and to see where they were going.
Written by Paul Greenberg, Contributor

First, once again, an apology to Microsoft and to those of you who like reading this stuff, for the lateness of this post on Convergence, which was well over a month ago. I'm on the road so much and had to finish the Watchlist and cry, cry, whine, whine, so I'm sorry.

But I can move on if you can.

As those of you who read my stuff know, I place a good deal of stock on the annual user conferences that software vendors put on. I think that they both reflect the state of the vendor and, at the same time, are indicators of the future of the vendor. You can see what progress they made, what promises they kept, and what problems they have by comparing where they were a year ago with where they currently stand.

The vendors feel the same as me. They spend millions of dollars putting these things on, making them their show of shows each year. They court customers and analysts and intermingle with their guests in what is often a highly orchestrated "experience" that is designed down to the positioning of the lights to provide an ambiance that is feel-good in nature, even when the news might not be as good.

Each vendor chooses the canvas and the colors of the paint they want to apply to that canvas. It varies from year to year — it can range from splashy and spectacularly vivid to more brown toned and muted, soothing rather than exciting. Whatever the choice, it is both deliberate and something that can make or break the company's efforts for the year.

This year, Microsoft was ubiquitous Windows 8 blue — a somewhat muted blue — and, folks, that was a good thing.

Where last year at Convergence, it was user experience and user interface and Windows 8 and all color and light and enthusiasm (and rightfully so), this year is more customer experience and the presence of Windows 8 in a ubiquitous fashion. It was/is just there.

What this means for Dynamics CRM, I'll get into in a minute in this shorter-than-normal and late blog post. First, a look at the conference itself, not the messaging.

Convergence: The conference

First, as I do every year, because I am in awe every year, I want to thank what I think is the best AR team in the industry: The folks from Waggoner Edstrom who work with the Dynamics CRM team. Umran Hasan, Lisa Perazzoli, Lourdes Rios Salazar, Anne Goldman, Leslie Boelter, and Meg Hollis deserve the designation. They take care of business, and they are professionals to the nth degree, but not to the exclusion of being warm and personable individuals. They are the textbook for AR and IR.

That's saying a lot, because being excellent at influencer relations (IR) isn't an easy thing — it's a relatively new approach to the more traditional analyst relations, and involves understanding the newer dynamics in the market when it comes to interacting with influencers, be they institutional analysts, independent advisors, or journalists. Plus, influencers can occasionally be snippy and sometimes feel entitled. So dealing with us ain't easy, and yet they make it that way. Thank you so much for doing that — not just once, but year after year.

Microsoft understands the importance of conferences, and, as I said in last year's Convergence post, it deliberately keeps things to an "intimate" size — this year, the number was 12,000. Needless to say, that's a relative number. But the key to its approach is to create a highly personalizable and personable experience for each attendee, despite the still rather large size. It isn't a high-energy experience. It is wise enough to know that this isn't its forte. It had a local band doing heavy and light rock, and it was a solid cover band with good vocalists and good musicians. But that was the feel of the conference. Solid.

To its credit, it knows that on the level of energy, no one is going to successfully compete with Salesforce and Dreamforce. Interestingly, except for one slightly snippy comment about a vendor's new messaging, the conference (thank God) was devoid of competitive misanthropy.

The biggest product picture

Dynamics in general and Dynamics CRM in particular is clearly playing an increasingly important role in the Microsoft product pantheon. Just to be clear, Convergence is a business apps conference, so business apps clearly are going to be front and center — and mentioned a lot more than, say, Office 365. But it's what's said and done between the lines that is meaningful at conferences like Convergence, and the message this year is clear: Customers first. Windows 8 is already a landscape fixture, so it no longer has to be emphasized — it just "is". And Microsoft is moving aggressively onto the competitive stage with Dynamics, so look out, Salesforce, SAP, Oracle, and others in the marketplace.

Why would I say that?

Because I want to.

OK, OK, not enough. So here's what I'm thinking. About a year ago, Microsoft coaxed Bob Stutz to take over CRM at the company. A great move. For those of you who don't know who that is, he is something of a technology legend in the CRM world, being the strategic architect (not the technical one) of Siebel and of the first true SAP CRM release: SAP CRM 2007.

He has been tasked at Microsoft in bringing Microsoft Dynamics CRM into the 21st century. It has been a serviceable, even good product focused on SFA and customer service. But it lacked quite a bit. It was missing marketing automation, it was missing a true social layer, and it lacked any kind of native customer analytics.

In its original incarnations, since the target markets in the earliest days of Dynamics CRM were small and midsized businesses, it could get by with what it had because it had a ubiquitous name and enough functionality in the two areas that customers in those markets cared about initially.

But, about two years ago, it decided to go upmarket and thus those missing pieces in combination with the navigability and the scalability of what it had became an issue that it had to solve in order to reach out to the enterprise.

Last year, to compound and resolve some of that, it introduced Windows 8 to great fanfare with a focus, even with the business applications, on usability, user experience, user interface, and customer experience. This was an advantage in that it normalized Microsoft Dynamics CRM with an interface that was contemporary, interesting, and highly navigable. It compounded the difficulties, too, because of the adoption difficulties Microsoft had with Windows 8 in its incipient stages. It added a layer of learning to the CRM suite that added work to the learning curve.

Let me point one thing out here before I move on and address some of you who might be Windows 8 naysayers or, more importantly, who are dissing Microsoft because the sales of Windows 8 aren't as high as (you) expected.

Microsoft is in this for the long run. This is a long-term play on its part because it understands that changing the paradigm to one appropriate to the 21st-century approach to person-machine interaction.

While none of this was any different from last year to this year, the messaging around the business applications at Convergence was no longer focused on Windows 8 and usability — but around the customer and the work that Dynamics CRM (and other Dynamics apps) enabled for those customers. It's playing it smart and, given the emphasis on customer experience, a corollary emphasis on customers, while generically always right, is specifically called for in this period — and in this (Microsoft) instance.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM progress

The level of progress for CRM in the last year for Microsoft can be game changing for the company. Dynamics CRM, if Microsoft is willing to give it the chance it should, can and should become the leading element of its business suite, given the progress made. But that's a non-trivial IF that I'll get to in a few. I'm not going to speak to the changes that it has made in the technology foundation, nor in the interface until what it is calling the Orion release drops in Q3 2013. This promises the mobile and Windows 8 versions of Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Microsoft Dynamics CRM is a work in progress (with an emphasis on the word "progress" and it is impressive in many ways. Why? Patience, grasshoppers), but I do want to speak to its two acquisitions, which are both very important to Microsoft's future in the CRM world.

The marketing not-cloud

The progress that Microsoft has made is not only in the utter reformation of the Dynamics CRM product, but also in the intelligence of its acquisitions to fill holes that have long existed in the portfolio. The acquisition of the integrated marketing management suite — Marketing Pilot (now Microsoft Dynamics Marketing) — was a truly intelligent move. The application, which has about two thirds of the functionality of Aprimo, is as close to its doppelganger as it is going to find. It is a great acquisition, but it needs a lot of TLC to make it a great part of the suite.

If you take a look at the functionality, it is dizzying. Ranging from the more traditional marketing automation functionality like campaign management and email marketing to the more complex management functions like collaborative project management and even not-obvious back-end functions like expense management and budgeting, you begin to see how rich the application suite really is, and, if used fully, would be able to handle all but the largest enterprises — and I'm not sure that is even a fair statement. It might be able to handle the largest ones.

Aye, but there's the rub. Most marketers don't need all that functionality, and even with the revamped Windows 8ish interface — a vast improvement over the original pre-acquisition one — it can be a confusing mischigas ("mess" for those of you not fluent in Yiddish) and actually achieves a level of "too much choice". But there is no reason to dumb it down, either, because as you go up the enterprise-scale food chain, the increased functionality becomes necessary.

As of now, which to be fair is version one, the way that you access Marketing Pilot is via a connector to the Dynamics CRM suite (which is fine, for now) but doesn't solve the "too, too much" conundrum.

But, surprise, surprise, my big-mouthed, highly opinionated self has a solution.

  1. Integrate it fully into the Dynamics CRM Suite. Don't leave it as an independently connected product. That way, it's not on-premises only; it's in the cloud, and Dynamics CRM is a full-blown suite.

  2. Provide a basic marketing edition with Dynamics CRM that has all the fundamental functionality available — marketing automation, email marketing, etc.

  3. Make the rest premium business services that you can subscribe to. This means that as a business grows and it starts needing to, say, manage resources, you can turn on the functionality by paying an extra whatever bucks per month per user for the additional capabilities. It sounds easy; it isn't. But it is the way that I think that Marketing Pilot gets to be part of the Microsoft suite that both makes it one of the better in the marketplace and monetizes it.

Do these things, and Marketing Pilot's acquisition becomes a steal at any price.

The social (Net)breeze

The Microsoft acquisition of Netbreeze works. It works because of how it intends to use it. Netbreeze, for those of you who don't know it, which would be most of you, is a Swiss company of seriously intelligent scientists who built a highly functional, modestly deep, user-friendly customer/social analytics product that actually can provide you with useful information — the kind that is usable for insights. Its greatest strength is its ability to do sentiment analysis in 28 languages, including several different writing systems (Arabic, Cyrillic etc). But even though the product is certainly a good entry in the marketplace, the value for Microsoft comes, not in the product per se, but in the intended use — its game plan.

If it had intended to buy the product so that it could make it part of a product portfolio, an offering, it would have been stupid acquisition at any price. It's not really built for that, and up against some of the deeper products in the space (eg, Clarabridge, NextPrinciples, the customer-facing analytics products of SAS, Oracle, SAP), it would not do well. But, instead, Bob Stutz and team acquired them for a different reason — one that not only makes sense, but it is actually the ideal approach to both the market, and to support the strengths of Netbreeze's offering. It is going to integrate it as a layer across the entirety of Dynamics CRM and give it away free of charge as the "social analytics" layer of the Dynamics CRM platform.

Taste of things to come

To Microsoft's credit, this wasn't a dramatic conference. The message that came through loud and clear this year is that it is proceeding with its initiative launched in 2012 to change the way people compute and to provide businesses with what they need to accommodate that change — and, of course, deal with the way that customers have been changing for the last decade.

Are there things that it can do? Of course there are. If you want to see what they are, read its Watchlist review of about a month ago. Beyond that, how it handles Marketing Pilot is going to be an important piece of its ability to provide a "right-sized" offering for multiple different target groups. All in all, it is on the right track to not only continue to be a major player, but also to reassert its position in the CRM market as one of a small handful of vendors that could be a good choice for any company, regardless of size.

We'll check back later this year to see how it's doing.


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