Microsoft CRM Uses Full Array of Outlook Technologies

So, you've noticed that all the people in your company who said they'd never get used to computers now have Outlook open all day. You're wondering whether you can take advantage of that and build some of your company business functions into Outlook. However, you're not sure whether you should do so by building a COM add-in, creating a custom Outlook form, or providing a folder home page.

Maybe the answer is "all of the above." Take a cue from Microsoft Customer Relationship Management (CRM), due for release later this year. (See "Get Ready For Microsoft CRM," July 23, 2002, , InstantDoc ID 26013 for details.) The Outlook client for the application's sales module uses all three major Outlook programming techniques—a COM add-in, custom forms, and folder home pages—to let users work with data in the CRM database.

The COM add-in provides toolbar buttons to create new appointments, tasks, contacts, and messages for use with Microsoft CRM. Each button launches a custom Outlook form with fields that link the new item to the CRM database. For example, the Microsoft CRM contact form has an Account button, which the user clicks to select from existing Microsoft CRM accounts. When the user saves the item, the data is posted to the Outlook Contacts folder and the CRM database. Microsoft CRM Product Manager Katie Hasbargen says that by using a custom form with custom linking fields, users can keep a mixture of items in their Outlook folders—both personal appointments and CRM appointments, for example—and not have the personal items show up in the CRM database.

In addition to the buttons to create new CRM items, the COM add-in's toolbar has a button that promotes a selected email message to a CRM "activity." After the user tags a message, the CRM database can track any future messages in the same conversation—both replies and forwards.

The custom forms and COM add-in buttons are just a small part of the Microsoft CRM application. The bulk of the program is browser-based. To see Microsoft-CRM-related details for a contact, the user clicks a button to launch a Web page that provides access to additional data fields for the contact.

In both the Outlook folder list and the Outlook Bar, the user sees several new folders, one for each type of CRM sales information, including leads, opportunities, and accounts. Clicking a Microsoft CRM folder changes the view in Outlook to a Web page associated with the folder. This ability to show a Web page when the user clicks a folder is called the "folder home page" feature. For example, the user can click the Reports folder to run any of the 100 predefined reports that will ship with Microsoft CRM. (The product will include Crystal Decisions' Crystal Reports reporting engine, according to Hasbargen, but customers who want to build their own reports will need a license for Crystal Enterprise.)

Microsoft CRM's browser client contains most of the CRM-specific sales functionality, but because the software can run in Outlook as a set of folder home pages, users won't need to switch from Outlook to another application to use Microsoft CRM. Another toolbar button that the COM add-in provides lets the user synchronize all or part of the CRM database with the local machine so that the data is available when the user is offline. Because Microsoft CRM doesn't require Exchange Server, Microsoft CRM doesn't use Exchange offline folders to create the portable copy of the database. Instead, synchronization is between SQL Server and a local Microsoft Data Engine (MSDE) database.

Although Exchange isn't a requirement, Hasbargen says companies that choose to integrate Exchange with Microsoft CRM can benefit from automatic tagging of messages as CRM activities. The Exchange connector will have an option for tracking as a CRM activity any message sent to a CRM contact.

For sales people who choose to use the Outlook client, Microsoft CRM will be a hybrid—part-Outlook, part-browser, but all available from within Outlook, even when working offline. This combination of different Outlook technologies—custom forms, COM add-ins, and folder home pages—is a good model to consider when you're building your own inhouse applications that depend on Outlook.

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