Microsoft brings tighter integration to Dynamics 365 and Teams

As the pandemic drags on and we learn about the requirements of working from home with distributed teams, users could be craving more integration across their tools to help reduce the clicks required to complete a set of tasks. Today at the Ignite Conference, Microsoft announced tighter integration between its business suite Dynamics 365 and its collaboration tool Teams to help with that issue.

Alysa Taylor, corporate VP for business applications and global industry at Microsoft, pointed out that one of the advantages of this native integration approach is that it helps reduce context switching across different applications. “We are committed to really bringing together the collaboration platform and the business process layer to enable salespeople, service representatives, operations managers [and other similar roles] to really have a unified platform in which they both collaborate and have their everyday business functions,” Taylor explained.

This could manifest itself in a number of different ways across marketing, sales and service. For instance, a marketer can create a webinar, which they set up and track in Dynamics 365 Marketing tools and run in Teams as a streaming event with the Teams streaming setup integrated directly into the Dynamics 365 console.

In a sales example Taylor says, “We’re enabling sellers to be able to track the career movements of their contacts using the LinkedIn Sales Navigator, as well as connect very specific sales records within Microsoft Teams without ever having to leave Dynamics 365 Sales. So you can be in the Sales application and you have the ability to deeply understand a contact and any contact changes that occur in Teams, and that’s automatically updated in Sales.”

If your company is not an all-Microsoft shop and wants to use different tools as part of these workflows, Taylor says that you can use Microsoft cross-cloud connectors to connect to another service, and this is true regardless of the tasks involved (so long as the connector to the desired application is available).

Salesforce, a primary rival of Microsoft in the business software space, spent over $27 billion to buy Slack at the end of last year to bring this kind of integration to its platform. Taylor sees the acquisition as a reaction to the integration Microsoft already has and continues to build.

“I think that Salesforce had to acquire Slack to be able to have that collaboration [we have], so we are years ahead of what they’re going to be able to provide because they will not have these native integrations. So I actually see the Salesforce acquisition as a response to what we’re doing with Dynamics 365 and Teams,” Taylor told me.

It’s worth pointing out that Salesforce is far ahead of Microsoft when it comes market share in the CRM space with over 19% versus under 3% for Microsoft, according to Gartner numbers from 2019. While it’s possible these numbers have shifted some since then, probably not significantly.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft enhances customer data platform as pandemic drives need for personalization

When Microsoft introduced its customer data platform last February the focus was on simply connecting silos of data to help customers get the data into the system, but as the pandemic has taken hold this year, customers need deeper insight into their customers and Microsoft has made some enhancements to the platform today.

James Phillips, president of Microsoft business applications says the goal of the platform is about understanding customers at a deeper level. “From that depth of understanding our customers can engage their customers through the entirety of the customer lifecycle,” Phillips told TechCrunch.

That could involve a variety of activities such personalizing offers, speaking to them in a way that they know their customers want to be spoken to, offering them new products and services that better meet their needs or supporting them better, he said.

He adds that COVID-19 has changed customer priorities and forced them to make adjustments to the way they do business and how they interact with customers. “As everything’s gone digital, the need to deeply understand your customer and to increase the efficacy of those engagements has really been heightened through this pandemic,” he said.

The company is announcing several new components to the customer data platform product to help customers build that understanding. The first is called Customer Engagement, which as the name implies takes all that data they’ve pushed to the CDP to help understand that customer better and deliver more meaningful interactions. That goes into preview today.

“Engagement Insights is about directly funneling web, mobile and connected product data back into Customer Insights to help continue to enrich that understanding of the customer in order to better serve them,” he said.

The next piece is about putting AI to work on all that data to allow marketers to make more educated predictions about the customers based on what they know about them. This takes advantage of Azure Synapse Analytics and provides a set of pre-built AI templates to help customers with elements like predicting customer churn, automating product recommendations and estimating customer lifetime value.

In addition, the company is offering a data governance product to help protect that data and it’s integrating with Microsoft Customer Voice, the company’s survey tool to give customers the ability to fill in the blanks in the data by asking the customers when all of the data doesn’t provide an answer.

Phillips says all of these capabilities are about helping customers to be more agile, so that as the world shifts, as it has so dramatically this year, businesses can be in a better position to react to those changes more quickly and meet the changing customer requirements.

It’s worth noting that Microsoft clearly isn’t alone in this type of offering, as every big company that sells marketing tools from Adobe to Salesforce to SAP is offering similar products for similar reasons.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft introduces Customer Voice, a real-time customer feedback tool

At Microsoft Inspire today, the company made several Dynamics 365 announcements, including Dynamics 365 Customer Voice, a real-time customer feedback tool that could compete with Qualtrics, the company SAP bought in 2018 for a cool $8 billion.

Microsoft General Manager Brenda Bown says that as more customers move online during the pandemic, it’s more important than ever to capture real-time customer feedback that you can combine with other data to build a more complete picture of the customer that could lead to more successful interactions in the future.

“Customer Voice is a feedback management solution, and it’s designed to empower businesses and organizations to build better products, deliver better experiences to customers, and really build the relationships for the customers with that feedback management tool,” Bown told TechCrunch.

The data gets shared with Microsoft’s customer data platform (CDP), and is built on top of Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform. The latter provides a way to customize the Customer Voice tool to meet the needs of an individual company.

Brent Leary, partner and co-founder at CRM Essentials, says this solves the problem of getting feedback as the interaction is happening. He adds that being able to share that data directly with the CDP makes it even more valuable.

“Customer feedback has to be done as close to the interaction/transaction as possible and as frictionless as possible for it to really work, or else customers won’t give it to you. And then the data has to be integrated into the CDP with all the other data automatically to really be of use. And having a platform to handle both the feedback capture and the data integration optimizes the likelihood of this happening,” Leary said.

The company also announced Dynamics 365 Connected Store, a set of tools designed to help stores manage in-store and curbside traffic, among other things. As the pandemic limits the number of people in a store at one time, using sensors and cameras, Connected Store can help managers understand and manage the number of people inside the store at any given time to help aid in social distancing.

It can also help add a level of automation to curbside pickup, letting an employee know when the customer has pulled up. “It alerts the employee and they can bring out the order for a more seamless and quick pickup. And obviously this scenario is super important today because of [more people wanting] contactless pick up,” Bown said.

Finally, the company announced a fraud protection component. She says that Dynamics 365 Fraud Protection helps protect businesses online or in physical stores from fraudulent activities, which she says is even more important as more transactions are conducted digitally. New capabilities include account protection and loss prevention tooling.

Inspire is the company’s annual partner conference, which is being held virtually this year. Bown says by running it virtually, the company can involve even more partners than a typical in-person conference because companies that couldn’t previously attend because of cost and distance, are able to participate this year.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft to open first data center in New Zealand as cloud usage grows

In spite of being in the midst of a pandemic sowing economic uncertainty, one area that continues to thrive is cloud computing. Perhaps that explains why Microsoft, which saw Azure grow 59% in its most recent earnings report, announced plans to open a new data center in New Zealand once it receives approval from the Overseas Investment Office.

“This significant investment in New Zealand’s digital infrastructure is a testament to the remarkable spirit of New Zealand’s innovation and reflects how we’re pushing the boundaries of what is possible as a nation,” Vanessa Sorenson, general manager at Microsoft New Zealand said in a statement.

The company sees this project against the backdrop of accelerating digital transformation that we are seeing as the pandemic forces companies to move to the cloud more quickly with employees often spread out and unable to work in offices around the world.

As CEO Satya Nadella noted on Twitter, this should help companies in New Zealand that are in the midst of this transformation. “Now more than ever, we’re seeing the power of digital transformation, and today we’re announcing a new datacenter region in New Zealand to help every organization in the country build their own digital capability,” Nadella tweeted.

The company wants to do more than simply build a data center. It will make this part of a broader investment across the country, including skills training and reducing the environmental footprint of the data center.

Once New Zealand comes on board, the company will boast 60 regions covering 140 countries around the world. The new data center won’t just be about Azure, either. It will help fuel usage of Office 365 and the Dynamics 365 back-office products, as well.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft Dynamics 365 update is focused on harnessing data

Microsoft announced a major update to its Dynamics 365 product line today, which correlates to the growing amount of data in the enterprise, and how to collect and understand that data to produce better customer experiences.

This is, in fact, the goal of all vendors in this space including Salesforce and Adobe, who are also looking to help improve the customer experience. James Philips, who was promoted to president of Microsoft Business Applications just this week, says that Microsoft has also been keenly focused on harnessing the growing amount of data and helping make use of that inside the applications he is in charge of.

“To be frank every single thing that we’re doing at Microsoft, not just in business applications but across the entire Microsoft Cloud, is on the back of that vision that data is coming out of everything, and that those organizations that can collect that data, harmonize it and reason over it will be in a position to be proactive versus reactive,” Philips told TechCrunch.

New customer engagement tooling

For starters, the company is adding functionality to its customer data platform (CDP), a concept all major vendors (and a growing group of startups) have embraced. It pulls together all of the customer data from various systems into one place, making it easier to understand how the customer interacts with you with the goal of providing better experiences based on this knowledge. Microsoft’s CDP is called Customer Insights.

The company is adding some new connectors to help complete that picture of the customer. “We’re adding new first- and third-party data connections to Customer Insights that allow our customers to understand, for example audience memberships, brand affinities, demographic, psychographic and other characteristics of customers that are stored and then harnessed from Dynamics 365 Customer Insights,” Philips said.

All of this, might make you wonder how they can collect this level of data and maintain GDPR/CCPA kind of compliance. Philips says that the company has been working on this for some time. “We did work at the company level to build a system that allows us and our customers to search for and then delete information about customers in each product group within Microsoft including my organization,” he explained.

The company has also added new sales forecasting tools and Dynamics 365 Sales Engagement Center. The first allows companies to tap into all this data to better predict the customers who sales is engaged with that are most likely to turn into sales. The second gives inside sales teams tools like next best action. These are not revolutionary by any means in the CRM space, but do provide new capabilities for Microsoft customers.

New operations level tooling

The operations side is related to what happens after the sale when the company begins to collect money and report revenue. To that end, the company is introducing a new product called Dynamic 365 Finance Insights, which you can think of as Customer Insights, except for money.

“This product is designed to help our customers predict and accelerate their cash flow. It’s designed specifically to identify opportunities where to focus your energy, where you may have the best opportunity to either close accounts payables or receivables or the opportunity to understand where you may have cash shortfalls,” Philips said.

Finally the company is introducing Dynamics 365 Project Operations,which provides a way for project-based business like construction, consulting and law to track the needs of the business.

“Those organizations, who are trying to operate in a project-based way now have with Dynamics 365 Project Operations, what we believe is the most widely used project management capability in Microsoft Project being joined now with all of the back-end capabilities for selling, accounting and planning that Dynamic 365 offers, all built on the same Common Data Platform, so that you can marry your front-end operations and operational planning with your back-end resource planning, workforce planning and operational processes,” he explained.

All of these tools are designed to take advantage of the growing amount of data coming into organizations, and provide ways to run businesses in a more automated and intelligent fashion that removes some of the manual steps involved in running a company.

To be clear, Microsoft is not alone in offering this kind of intelligent functionality. It is part of a growing movement to bring intelligence to all aspects of enterprise software, regardless of vendor.


By Ron Miller

Microsoft launches new AI applications for customer service and sales

Like virtually every other major tech company, Microsoft is currently on a mission to bring machine learning to all of its applications. It’s no surprise then that it’s also bringing ‘AI’ to its highly profitable Dynamics 365 CRM products. A year ago, the company introduced its first Dynamics 365 AI solutions and today it’s expanding this portfolio with the launch of three new products: Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, Customer Service and Market Insights.

“Many people, when they talk about CRM, or ERP of old, they referred to them as systems of oppression, they captured data,” said Alysa Taylor, Microsoft corporate VP for business applications and industry. “But they didn’t provide any value back to the end user — and what that end user really needs is a system of empowerment, not oppression.”

It’s no secret that few people love their CRM systems (except for maybe a handful of Dreamforce attendees), but ‘system of oppression’ is far from the ideal choice of words here. Yet Taylor is right that early systems often kept data siloed. Unsurprisingly, Microsoft argues that Dynamics 365 does not do that, allowing it to now use all of this data to build machine learning-driven experiences for specific tasks.

Dynamics 365 AI for Sales, unsurprisingly, is meant to help sales teams get deeper insights into their prospects using sentiment analysis. That’s obviously among the most basic of machine learning applications these days, but AI for Sales also helps these salespeople understand what actions they should take next and which prospects to prioritize. It’ll also help managers coach their individual sellers on the actions they should take.

Similarly, the Customer Service app focuses on using natural language understanding to understand and predict customer service problems and leverage virtual agents to lower costs. Taylor used this part of the announcement to throw some shade at Microsoft’s competitor Salesforce. “Many, many vendors offer this, but they offer it in a way that is very cumbersome for organizations to adopt,” she said. “Again, it requires a large services engagement, Salesforce partners with IBM Watson to be able to deliver on this. We are now out of the box.”

Finally, Dynamics 365 AI for Market Insights does just what the name implies: it provides teams with data about social sentiment, but this, too, goes a bit deeper. “This allows organizations to harness the vast amounts of social sentiment, be able to analyze it, and then take action on how to use these insights to increase brand loyalty, as well as understand what newsworthy events will help provide different brand affinities across an organization,” Taylor said. So the next time you see a company try to gin up some news, maybe it did so based on recommendations from Office 365 AI for Market Insights.


By Frederic Lardinois

Microsoft Power Apps update includes new Common Data Service

Microsoft announced the spring update to its Power BI and Power Apps platform today with a significant enhancement, a new common data service that enables companies to build data-based applications from a variety of data sources.

This is part of a wider strategy that is designed to remove some of the complexity associated with gathering, processing and incorporating data into applications.

Microsoft is essentially giving customers access to the same set of tools and services it has used internally to build Dynamics 365, its enterprise suite of tools that includes CRM, marketing automation and field service along with enterprise resource planning tools (ERP).

While the company has been allowing third party developers to build application on the platform for about 18 months with its Power Apps tools, they haven’t been able to take advantage of the data under the hood without some heavy lifting. Microsoft aims to change that with the Common Data Service.

Diagram: Microsoft

“What that service means, practically speaking, is that it’s not only a place to store data, but a model (schema) that is stamped out there with everything you would need to build a business app around [elements] such as contacts, events, customers [and so forth], Ryan Cunningham, Microsoft program manager for Power Apps explained. This allows the programmer to take advantage of pre-built relationships and rules and how they should be enforced without having to code them from scratch.

Cunningham points out that they tried to make it fairly simple to build the apps, while still providing a level of customization and the ability to use Microsoft data or data from another source. That’s where the Common Data Store comes in.

He says that developers can take advantage of the 200 connectors that come pre-built out of the box and connect to all that data you’ve been collecting in the Microsoft products, but they aren’t limited to the Microsoft data. “You can still build custom applications on top of the platform, and get the benefit of the platform we’ve built our tools on,” he said.

The Common Data Store is part of a much broader set of announcements around the spring releases of Dynamics 365, Office 365 and Power BI platforms all announced today.