The future of Microsoft Dynamics CRM is web integration

The term “portal” can mean different things to different people, but generally a portal is a window onto business information that is generally only available to the internal business or a limited number of external users.

Within a portal, we might want to serve up information but also allow and empower users to interact with the business in a much more integral way. For instance, other than updating a name and email address, a company might want to allow visitors to administer their own account information, register their interest in a seminar, buy merchandise or request a sales call. All of these things can be handled by the administration/customer service/customer support team(s) using Microsoft Dynamics CRM, but it’s more efficient to enable your customers to make direct changes themselves to the data in CRM.

Traditionally building front end portals to serve up data from such things as Dynamics CRM, were costly enterprises requiring thousands of hours of development.  Although these days any twelve year old can knock up a website, integration with a back office system has always provided more of a challenge.  Over a year ago, Microsoft released a limited portal solution with some nice built in connectivity to Dynamics CRM, but it still required developer involvement to finish it off. Since then some CRM providers have taken this slightly further and enhanced the original offering.

Technology Management have formed a strategic partnership with one such pioneer, called ADX. ADX Portals are designed to be almost plug and play with basic functionality that you would expect like customer login, account administration, helpdesk administration. Further to that, the portal, being a website in reality, is still very much extensible and flexible when it comes to fulfilling the customers’ needs. Solutions are imported into the target Microsoft Dynamics CRM organisation using an installer which makes the management of components particularly easy. 

Brave new world

Using this latest technology, rather than a customer portal taking several months to design and develop, an ADX type portal can be deployed to a customer within a day!  Of course, it is unlikely that the portal will be a 100% fit out of the box and therefore some custom development may be necessary, but all the basic functionality would be available.

A basic ADX Portal comes in several flavours which are pre-configured to be a rough fit to typical types of business that might want to use it. There are five in all, Community, Retail, Partner, Conference and Company. All of these types have components which can be mixed and matched to suit the particular business. Features include the following:

  • Web Content Management
  • Service Scheduling
  • Customer and Account Management
  • Opportunity Distribution Management
  • Helpdesk (more on this in a moment)
  • Blogs
  • Polls
  • Ideas
  • Issues
  • Events
  • Knowledge Base
  • eCommerce with preconfigured PayPal and Authorize.Net gateways.
  • News and Announcements

Content Management

One of the most interesting aspects of these portals is the Web Content Management functionality of ADX which allows a suitably empowered member of staff to actively manage the portal contents and copy. Administrators can easily add new pages, change information, change navigation and move webpages around without the requirement for traditional web development skills such as HTML.

The actual website code itself still resides in IIS as you would expect, but it is the way that the pages and information is manipulated in Dynamics CRM that gives the website the look and feel. References to the webpages are created and stored in Microsoft Dynamics CRM and since the website runs on CSS3 and HTML5, the entire look and feel can be changed quite easily and quickly from within Dynamics CRM

Any authenticated Dynamics CRM user can write content and have it displayed in the portal with the click of a button. Since forms displayed on the website are derived from actual forms in Dynamics CRM, if it was decided that an additional field was required on the portal, then a System Customiser need only add that same attribute to the form in Dynamics CRM to have it automatically appear on the portal. The portal code respects Dynamics CRM restrictions when it renders the form, so a field which is “business required” in Dynamics CRM will also be on the website

Portal Features

A good example of a use for an ADX Portal is a helpdesk, a screenshot of the maintenance is shown below:

image

A helpdesk portal is available to use in ADX which allows visitors to notify, update, and administer cases logged with the back office team. Cases are handled as actual Dynamics CRM cases and so the back-office team will be able to view information and proactively work with the customer to solve the issue on a much more synergistic basis. There is an integration with the Knowledge Base which allows visitors to search for answers to common question and could double as a FAQ section.

Other components of interest are the Forums and Blogs integration. Blogs are well known to drive traffic to a main site and so act as a powerful marketing tool in their own right. Again, as with the website content management, blog posts are managed directly within Dynamics CRM. 

Upgrading Fears

The portal offering is both Dynamics CRM 2011 and CRM 2013 compliant. All solutions will behave correctly when they are upgraded from 2011 to 2013 so there is plenty of scope for forward compatibility. Likewise, the solutions will behave equally well on premise or as part of a Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online solution. The portal code is also device agnostic which means that a portal will work on any device and any browser. Visitors can log a call to the Helpdesk using their Android, Apple or Microsoft mobile device while sitting on a train travelling to a business meeting.

Conclusion

Businesses are born and thrive in an increasingly connected world where many people do much of their daily business via electronic media and a portal can serve as not only a shop front, but a method of direct communication with potential customers. In return, those customers will feel more in control of their interaction with you and it becomes more of a strategic alliance than the traditional view of a customer and a vendor. A portal is not only a relatively cheap method of marketing but also easy to implement and administer in the longer term. Portals are here to stay and the scope of the interaction with a customer is only limited by the bounds of your imagination.

And for customers’ of Technology Management, watch out for an announcement regarding our own use of Dynamics CRM and ADX Portal – a customer support portal for logging, tracking and updating Dynamics NAV, Dynamics CRM and Technical support issues.

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