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CRM 3.0 shipped with some innovative but unusual functionality for a CRM application: service scheduling. This was a technically challenging project and some people on the CRM team are still wondering why we invested so much in this area. As with any sort of business and technology decision there are multiple reasons, some of them historical and organizational and others very pragmatic and business focused.


About five years ago I joined the Microsoft Business Solutions division to work on a bCentral product called  Appointment Manager. This is a great, hosted service scheduling application that is available from the Microsoft Small Business Center today. Appointment Manager lets organizations create a schedule for their services and expose it to customers who can then self-schedule appointments. We’ve got a fair number of customers using the product to schedule all sorts of things from hair cuts to day care to blood drives. It’s a simple solution to a complex set of problems.


The business case for Appointment Manager was simple: the vast majority of North American and European businesses are service based. Even businesses that we might thing of as manufacturing businesses largely focus on the services: maintenance, repair, consulting that surround a loss leader manufacturing business unit. But where inventory management applications have radically improved productivity in manufacturing and retail we haven’t been able to use information technology to deliver productivity breakthroughs to the larger service sector of the economy.


If we carry that comparison between manufacturing and service forward we can see that where a manufacturing business deals in parts, a service business deals in time. We realized that if we were going to achieve greater productivity improvements in the service sector, we had to treat time as inventory and manage it accordingly. Five years ago there were several software companies chasing down schedule optimization and time management problems but these were very expensive applications available only to businesses able to spend, literally, millions of dollars on implementations. Appointment Manager sought to provide improved “time inventory management” for small organizations with minimal IT infrastructure.


Five years ago David Thacher and company were working mightily on getting CRM 1.0 to market. Dave also happened to manage the Appointment Manager team. Hosted applications weren’t getting the traction any of us expected or hoped but we believed that the notion of time inventory management was a great idea.  Dave too believed in this and moved to get that that service scheduling functionality into a future version of the CRM product. This was a big bet; while the CRM 1.0 and 1.2 teams were working to ship those versions of CRM the service scheduling team was working in parallel making a deep technology investment.


In addition to the important opportunities available in solving customer business problems we were also trying to solve Microsoft business challenges. Building a database front end isn’t very hard. To build a successful business the MS CRM team needs to do more than just provide a specific relational model for contacts and opportunities with some UI on top of it. We could have done that as an Access application (in fact, until this last year there were some Microsoft executives asking why we weren’t doing just that). We have a deep belief that we should be using technology to solve problems. When approaching problems we ask ourselves: “does this technology solve a real business problem” and “is this technology difficult to build?” If it’s yes on both, we’ve got a great idea that’s worth pursuing: a solution to a problem where competitors will hesitate to invest. With service scheduling we believe that we’ve provided a solution for some very hard to solve problems that are at the core of what many businesses struggle with every day. That functionality has been wrapped in CRM because every service business needs to center its business on its customers. This gives Microsoft CRM powerful advantages over competing CRM applications.


In future posts I’ll tell you what specific problems we set out to solve with CRM’s service scheduling and where we see opportunities for extending that functionality.


Barry Givens

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