Microsoft has released plans for a new set of Microsoft Dynamics CRM capabilities that it hopes will help organisations engage with a new set of customers and then keep track of and nurture these relationships.

The launch is expected to take place in the second quarter of 2014 and could offer a boon for British businesses attempting to automate their marketing processes.

Arguably the most exciting shift in the new release will be the move towards a better-implemented social system, which could prove to be a game-changer when it comes to linking up with customers online.

To encourage sales, marketing and customer care to gain insights into the buyers they interact with, the global tech giant has created Microsoft Social Listening, a new service that allows firms to glean information from conversations on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

It will let marketers track the success of their campaigns and products on a global scale, allowing them to learn more about their potential customer base and tweak or improve their approach further down the line.

Furthermore, the service will make it easier for everyone in a business to examine social metrics rather than limiting this information to a small number of experts, allowing more broad-based marketing plans to emerge.

Bob Stutz, corporate vice president with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, said: "Businesses want solutions that give them market insights and the ability to deliver amazing customer experiences."

"The new Microsoft Dynamics CRM update democratises social listening, adds new marketing capabilities for more impact and enables businesses to deliver outstanding customer service. With this new release, we are essentially changing the CRM game."

In addition to the social developments detailed above, Microsoft are planning to improve case management facilities to make it easier for businesses to maintain a strong relationship with customers of all kinds.

This development will lead to a smoother and more personal approach, the firm claimed.

The latest forecast for the coming year from respected tech market analyst Gartner has suggested the US demand for customer relations management (CRM) is likely to rise, with cloud revenues expected to play a big part in this booming level of demand.

Organisations across the country are keen to improve customer experience and feel that CRM is the best way of doing this, according to the report.

Joanne Correia, research vice president, said the process will be “at the heart of digital initiatives in coming years”, a prediction that will ring true for many British firms as well as their American counterparts.

As with the big data trend recorded over the last few years, it is possible that US companies are proving to be early adapters of new technology, partly because of the sheer scale of their market compared to that seen in the UK.

“Unsurprisingly, high-tech, banking, insurance, securities, telecommunications, pharmaceutical, consumer goods, IT manufacturing and IT services vertical industries will continue to be the largest spenders on CRM as they have the widest use of different types of CRM applications and technologies,” said Gartner vice-president Ed Thomson.

Gartner concluded that the Internet of Things – the process whereby ordinary appliances such as kettles and ovens will be connected to the web – is likely to prove a major driver for CRM, as utilising these kind of devices will offer a wealth of opportunities for data analysis.

This could be reflected in the UK as well as the larger market in the US, with experts predicting that localised and microtargeting could be on the up over the course of 2014.

Ashley Friedlein, chief executive of Econsultancy, recently told Marketing Week he expects to see more firms make use of the vast amount of data available to them in order to connect with consumers.

Technology such as CRM is making it easier to follow the consumer journey from start to finish, he indicated.

Online marketing campaigns need to be seen as secure as well as being innovative and engaging if they are to connect with an increasingly web-savvy customer base, it has been claimed.

The latest edition of the annual TRUSTe Consumer Confidence Index, released late last month, found six in ten web users to be more concerned about their privacy than they were in 2013.

Given the shocking revelations about the NSA that made headlines last year, this caution is entirely understandable, with Britons worried about how their personal data is likely to be used.

However, firms can take the initiative and ensure that potential buyers – on a b2b as well as a b2c basis – feel comfortable in engaging with their advertising initiatives.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM is a highly secure system for this form of marketing, with the tech giant keen to be seen as a trustworthy partner when it comes to data security.

"We proactively monitor to help identify potential unknown threats by predicting malicious behaviour and monitoring for irregular events that may indicate threats," the company claimed.

TRUSTe European managing director Ken Parnham said: "After a barrage of media headlines about government surveillance programmes such as NSA's PRISM, it is perhaps unsurprising that consumer online trust has fallen to its lowest point yet … it is a wake-up call for businesses."

Considering that the data contained within a CRM system can often be a business' most valuable asset when it comes to marketing, it's obvious that choosing the right provider is crucial.

And in the light of the TRUSTe report showcasing widespread consumer concern over privacy, this looks like an even more important decision.

Lack of trust can result in a drop in sales and restrict the growth of the digital economy as b2b or b2c customers prefer to use traditional marketing tools which they consider to be more secure, so firms need to take a great deal of care with their data handling.

The internet has made marketing a fundamentally real-time, responsive process. It's no longer enough simply to send out a newsletter and wait for the sales to come rolling in – businesses need to stay on top of their data if they want to connect with potential customers.

A good example emerged last month when Marketing Week reported that auction website eBay recorded a 22 per cent jump in searches for polka dot dresses on its site after the Duchess of Cambridge left the hospital wearing one following the birth of her child.

Similarly, during a cold snap in October of last year, searches for coats from the auction website jumped by nearly 50 per cent on the previous week.

Obviously, these examples are focused on the world of consumer sales, but b2b companies can also benefit from analysing their data in real time via customer relations management (CRM) processes that provide up-to-date information about how buyers are behaving.

UK head of eBay advertising Phuong Nguyen said: "Despite the opportunities, many brands aren’t leveraging instant insights, or building in the necessary flexibility for campaigns to use them as much as they could."

"Targeting based on real-time behaviour means that brands can be quick to capitalise whenever new pockets of consumers emerge."

This is transferable to the b2b sector, where flexibility can often be even more important – for instance, the oil and gas market is particularly sensitive to minute changes in the market, something that CRM can help businesses stay on top of.

Because the insight garnered through CRM processes can be used to target specific areas or customers instantaneously, it adds to the efficiency of the marketing cycle for firms keen to gain a jump on the competition.

And with the proliferation of data as smartphones and tablets make their mark, there is likely to be even more information for analysts to make use of over the coming years.

The traditional approach to B2B marketing will no longer cut the mustard, with many companies changing their approach and adopting elements of the b2c model in order to stay ahead of the competition, an expert has claimed.

Simon McEvoy, planning director at Tangent Snowball, argued that the old-fashioned system of direct, down-the-line marketing aimed at forming a close personal relationship with a business customer is no longer effective.

Writing for Brand Republic, he suggested firms with large B2B customer networks are beginning to find this style of advertising ineffective.

“Expectations within the business community have increased. A generation of business owners … have grown up with the sophisticated use of web technology and emotionally charged advertising campaigns,” he declared.

Agencies have also played a major role in encouraging conservative b2b firms to adopt more innovative measures over the last few years, added Mr McEvoy.

Furthermore, the economic downturn over the last few years “has caused the B2B landscape to become incredibly competitive, so businesses are looking for ways to acquire and keep B2B customers which go beyond price or offer-led messaging”.

But what does this mean for companies? How can they develop their approach beyond the old-fashioned remit of linking up with interested customers and integrate elements of b2c marketing into a more complex, modern strategy.

Utilising technology is vital – social media platforms are becoming increasingly important, with b2b customers sourcing goods and services via Twitter and other sites more regularly.

Customer relationship management (CRM) can play a role in this process – not only is it able to link up with social media sites automatically, it also helps firms store the kind of data they need to produce effective, well-targeted marketing campaigns.

According to Mr McEvoy, it’s important that companies think carefully about their brand before embarking on a new style of advertising – after all, what works for one firm might be ineffective for another.

We live in a business environment where almost everything can be measured, so there’s no excuse for throwing money away without making an analysis of whether or not your spending is effective. Of course, some things remain intangible – how do you measure reputation? – but you shouldn’t be spending on CRM (customer relationship management) without knowing if something is coming back to you on the bottom line.

CRM is all about increasing the value of your marketing efforts. Treating customers better should make them more receptive to marketing message and knowing how your customers behave will help you target your marketing spending more effectively.

Marketing ROI and Customer value

Because CRM can track customer interactions all the way through from prospect to customer it should be possible to measure with a great degree of accuracy how well your marketing spending is working. Your CRM system should allow you to monitor each marketing campaign so that, for example, a particular email shot will be attached as a label to the customer record of each client it attracts and at the end of the process you should know how much each customer spent with you. You should end up with a simple equation – we spent £x on this campaign and generated £y revenue as a result.

Sounds simple. However, it’s quite a complex process that will add extra tasks to everything your marketing and sales teams do. You need them to buy into this if it’s going to work. You also need your teams to talk to each other and cooperate on a task in which they will not necessarily see an end result.

You also need to be prepared to make the best use of the information you’ve gathered and the, usually automatic, analysis. Unread reports are useless.

Where to start?

Of course, you’ll need an effective CRM system that provides all these features and you’ll need to know how to use it – perhaps you need training or consultancy help. And, social media is a whole new(ish) area which is making both CRM and marketing people scratch their heads when it comes to quantifying the return on each Facebook update or Tweet.

Marketing is about how people feel about your company so measuring every aspect of it will never be possible, what about the customer who likes an email you sent them but approaches you throw a different channel? However, CRM can put figures to much of this seemingly intangible work and not to take advantage of this analysis is a waste.

The ebb and flow of the business world means your business needs to keep evolving, it needs to be dynamic. How do you account for this? How do you ensure that a piece of software or technology remains useful even if there is a shift in your business?

Research is obviously crucial, but research can only go so far, it can only account for so many things. To survive in this evolving world you need to be bold and embrace change, plan accordingly. It’s unrealistic for you not to have a long term business plan, but qualify it, lay it out in stages with failsafes. That is to say think long term but act short term.

First steps

Choosing an adaptable CRM will go some to alleviating some of the issues your business can face. Microsoft is fully aware of the ever changing world of business, which is why their Dynamics package offers regular updates to ensure that both they, and you, adapt to new trends post haste. This sort of leadership allows businesses to feel secure in their partnership with Microsoft.

The past few months have seen a noticeable shift towards self support and self diagnosis of issues online. People are keen to have access to everything through the internet and are beginning to snub traditional call centre customer support in favour of solving problems themselves. With this trend on the increase, Microsoft recently acquired Parature in a move to modernise the customer support functions of Dynamics. This proactive attitude and bold decision making is what businesses should be aspiring to.

Social media’s importance is quite readily accepted these days, after all it is hard to ignore the fact that around 20% of all visits to websites are via Facebook, but issues still remain surrounding integration. Although the quote above highlights Facebook’s importance in this world, social media platforms are at their most useful when used in conjunction. Trawling through the various different sites is inefficient and wasteful, 30% of marketers say having disparate data sources is a main reason why they can’t glean useful insights from customer data. This makes Dynamics all the more impressive by the fact that it does, in fact, integrate all the major social media platforms.

What’s next?

While the business world is constantly in flux, some priorities never change; keeping costs low. Using Microsoft Dynamics has been shown to result in a lower cost than alternative CRMs. Savings can be more necessary at some times more than others, but the board will always appreciate them – especially when they don’t negatively affect the business.

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So we all know that in 2014 a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) System is a fairly standard element of the technology make-up of any size of business.  It helps businesses increase sales, automate marketing and provide superb customer service. Right? Well yes I suppose it does!  But does it truly help the people on the road work smarter and lead to better sales and higher margins?

To be honest, in most industries this straightforward sales approach works just fine – the traditional three-tier process: source the contact; work the account; create the opportunity. However in a more global-reaching and project-centric industry such as Oil and Gas, CRM needs to do a lot more to really ensure that it returns its investment within the short to medium term.

The Relationship Pyramid

The traditional approach doesn’t always work in this sector, because business developers are generally focused on a more project-based sale as the source of business rather than solely via a particular customer or company.  At the early stages, a potential opportunity hasn’t yet identified who will be the leading operator, and so it is difficult for other CRM systems to link to a lead customer account to attach any activity, value or forecasting prior to main contract award.

Therefore other systems have to be re-engineered to adapt the sales approach from this standard way to a more project-focused method for creating opportunities and managing the key contacts within.  In Dynamics CRM with a Project at the top and centre, contacts across many businesses can be assigned and linked to ensure a full customer view can be created of the key roles and individuals that needed to be managed to ensure a slice of the sales pie is made available to you.

Dealing with a large operator can mean the linking and managing of upwards of 20 key contacts that are able to influence the progression of a sales opportunity, as well as recognising your colleague in another region could also have spoken to them or have a strong relationship in place.  That takes a lot of bandwidth for someone if they don’t use CRM in the right way, so it is invaluable to all sales people and managers to build an intelligent landscape of key influencers within their daily life and the industry as a whole.

The Family Tree

Part of a CRM system should be the growing of a major asset of the business – clean and accurate customer and partner data.  How invaluable is it to be able to see where ‘Peter Smith’ now works, where he previously worked, who he has worked with over the years, and therefore where the relationship can be grown and nurtured.

Building an overall picture of the movement of key players is crucial in understanding where to position yourself as a company but more importantly – in a personally measured environment – as a sales person.  Therefore choosing a CRM system like Microsoft Dynamics that can understand and control complex business relationships across multiple companies and projects is important when selecting the correct system and the right configuration within it.

Recycling the Business Card

Finally, where do we all keep the 100+ business cards we get daily at OTC or Offshore Europe? It’s easy to create a space on your desk or have a drawer dedicated to the storage of unindexed contacts.  Let’s use a business card reader to scan them all directly into CRM, and work and market them professionally.