By Patrick Huisman, Senior CRM Consulanta, Avanade

Microsoft Dynamics CRM's flexible xRM capabilities make it a popular option for replacing legacy applications that were either heavily customized or built from scratch long ago. In most cases, a team will consider CRM as a replacement option if the processes are client-related, but interestingly the old applications mostly have ERP-like characteristics with a strong focus on logistics and finance.

Processes automated by a legacy application are usually not generic enough to be supported by configuring standard ERP capabilities. Often, these solution owners believe that only a heavily customized application can support their needs, but this is where Dynamics CRM and its xRM platform can come to the rescue.  Having done multiple xRM implementations, there are important lessons to be learned about how introduce Dynamics CRM to legacy application owners in a way that helps them see a path forward to reduced customization by applying smart planning and management principles.

Use the strengths of CRM

As obvious as it might seem, be sure to use the strengths of Dynamics CRM when designing a new xRM solution.  For instance, use capabilities like:

  • Modeling of business entities
  • Workflow
  • Email/Mail merge
  • Integration with Microsoft stack

The modeling capabilities should be one of the most obvious starting points. Dynamics CRM allows you to define the data model, including the business entities and a relations between them. This approach makes it very easy for owners of a legacy application to transfer an existing data model  to Dynamics CRM. Usually most of the data model logic of an existing application can be reused, though it is important to check the approach against some basic modeling principals of Dynamics CRM, especially related to Accounts, Contact and Activities. The relation and activity model from a legacy system often does not directly map with the Dynamics CRM's model. In most cases a data migration effort is needed to transform the custom model to the model of CRM.

When an organization uses the xRM approach, they can move beyond the standard CRM entities but still take full advantage of the most valuable out of the box functionality of the CRM system. Great examples are the use of workflow, email templates, and mail merge functionality. Workflows can support the automation of processes and are especially useful in supporting processes that go through different stages and that involve multiple users. One popular example is approval processes. Email templates and mail merge functionality allow for the easy creation of output based on information present in the system. And since it is still Dynamics CRM technology, customers still enjoy ease of integration to the rest of the Microsoft platform.

One pitfall in XRM implementations is that all the focus goes to transferring a legacy application's core processes to the Dynamics CRM platform, but core CRM features for Sales and Marketing do not get enough attention, despite being important drivers in requesting the change. Quite often, it is marketing or sales that is driving the replacement of the current system, and their most urgent needs might start with the core CRM capabilities and extend to the xRM features.

Transferring custom logic and processes to CRM

One danger in XRM implementations is that a company can end up with another heavily customized application that fails to reduce complexity, improve maintainability, or reduce dependency on a CRM partner. When new customization replaces old, the flexibility that should have been one of the strong points of the new platform is gone. But this pitfall can be avoided by using the power of modeling in Dynamics CRM to reduce the total amount of custom coding. Parameter settings and variables can reside in separate entities in CRM, making it easier for such settings be managed without having the need for direct access to the custom code.

To take the most advantage of the strengths of CRM, an organization needs to be open to changing its processes to follow the way CRM is setup, especially in the areas of workflow support and security. Tailoring fully to the legacy requirements of the customer can lead to a lot of custom coding and a solution that is inflexible and difficult to upgrade and maintain.

In all xRM implementations we have been involved in there are examples that are so specific that custom coding is required - calculations or logic that can only be supported by creating truly custom logic. At the start of all XRM implementations, an evaluation should be made of how much custom coding is needed. Based on that evaluation a decision should be made whether or not to use Dynamics CRM. If you're not able to use the guidelines above and largely tailor the new solution to the strengths of CRM in an xRM scenario, then you should really consider whether Dynamics CRM is the right solution.

In one specific xRM project, we added the ability to dynamically generate and output payment proposals from a system. While this could be an entire custom application, XRM allowed us to  provide flexibility in the way data was gathered, processed, and output. In this scenario, a new entity was created in which field and relationship information could be stored about the business offering being proposed. When a new proposal was needed, the logic for rendering the proposal was designed to dynamically pick up the set of custom field values - no changing the code for each proposal or for different sets of fields.

This payment proposal solution was typical of the strengths of xRM in that it relied on core CRM capabilities and gave a lot of flexibility to the customer by significantly reducing the amount of customization or the need for frequent updates.

Remember the reasons for choosing xRM

Going from a fully custom application to an xRM application based on Dynamics CRM has many potential benefits, including lowering the dependency on knowledge of specific developers who are responsible for maintaining the current system. But before investing in xRM, it is important to justify the new strategy.  Consider how the new solution can solve pain points like lack of flexibility in supporting new processes, controlling costs, and offering a growth path that current applications cannot provide.  And do not lose sight of the fact that Dynamics CRM can not only modernize existing strategic processes that are highly specialized, but it can also improve core CRM processes in sales, marketing and service.