By Jason Gumpert, Editor

Convergence 2015 Expo Hall 

Microsoft Business Solutions (MBS) is resetting elements of its Dynamics ERP and CRM product management and marketing to align with the company's larger goals in the commercial space. While many of those changes will likely become visible in smaller chunks over time, Microsoft partners and customers who believe in Microsoft's vision will be wise to continue to pay attention and absorb the updates as they happen.

Two major products, Power BI and Microsoft Dynamics CRM, offer examples of how Microsoft and its partners have already started looking at altering their approach.

Partners and the Power BI opportunity

The new version of Power BI that is now globally available as a preview has some key advantages to many organizations' current piecemeal BI and reporting mechanics.

James Phillips, Microsoft's corporate vice president leading the Power BI effort, said in an interview that making Power BI both adoptable and directly relevant to the business of Dynamics ERP and CRM partners will be important to its success:

"I have had a number of partners and implementers contacted me on LinkedIn. They wanted to figure out how to incorporate Power BI into their practice. There's a revenue stream there perhaps and a solution for their customers: the ability to get value out of the data. There is a natural desire for the integrator space to expand [on the software with] service offerings."

Power BI adoption will depend on Microsoft and its partners developing a story that goes much deeper into the customer's world in two key ways. First there is the need to define the types of analysis and performance management behaviors that would propel an organization forward, showing executives, teams, and individuals how to get a handle on Power BI capabilities with a reasonable workflow. Second, there are the common data management and integration challenges that Power BI aims to reduce. BI solution providers have been trying to help simplify data management challenges for years and they have the battle scars to prove it.

Microsoft has many true believers for their BI roadmap, but these are the same people who have largely mastered the fundamental technologies that make Power BI possible. As one such Microsoft customer told us at Convergence, his expertise in Power Query, Power Pivot, SQL Server Reporting Service, SQL Server Analysis Service, and SharePoint make Power BI an attractive option. For less intrepid IT professionals, strong partner guidance (read: handholding) will remain a key element of improving BI maturity.

Challenge: Talk about CRM from the customer perspective

With Dynamics CRM, Microsoft has undertaken an ambitious and largely successful revamping of its R&D and product management over the last two years. Its CRM product suite is considered top tier by most analysts and it is showing strong growth in the marketplace. CRM is expected to be an important area of expansion at Microsoft this year - there was talk last week that some Microsoft sales reps have seen their CRM quotas more than double for 2015.

Beyond that product progress, some CRM experts also say they are waiting for the strategic positioning of Dynamics CRM to catch up to the R&D.

Director of CRM Product Marketing Angela Bandlow, who is still a relative newcomer to Microsoft, pointed out in an interview that sales productivity will be shaped by both the CRM and Office teams going forward. Developments like the embedded Excel and OneNote windows in the Dynamics CRM client are first signs of the changing nature of that inter-department relationship.

"We give [the Office team] that feedback on how to evolve their tools. There is great collaboration between teams," she said.

This approach should be welcome news for partners who have heard the talk but will want to see the results that they can bring to their clients and prospects.

"True sales, service, and marketing professionals want to see Microsoft relate [CRM] to a meaty customer problem," says Dave Nelson, head of CRM solutions for Avanade. "It still comes across as things you can do, not [for example] ‘here's how these things will help a grocery chain increase customer retention or average promotion uptake'. Show me how the tools are used in a real life situation."

Nelson adds that his team has seen great results by taking a more customer-centric point of view in pitching CRM solutions. Whereas Microsoft is talking sales productivity and employee usage scenarios, Avanade is now presenting from the customer perspective. (You can check out a similar type of presentation on building a roadmap to omni-channel customer engagement, delivered to an audience by Avanade's Barry Givens in late 2014.)

"We show the customer's expectations at various points, their actions at various points," Nelson said. "Then we showed the technology that a business might use to respond to that. That resonates much more with a business audience. As Microsoft looks to make [Convergence] more the business event, and in doing so attracts more true sales, marketing, and service pros, rather than IT, it will be critical to have more content and demos that demonstrate that Microsoft understands their day to day lives."

The year ahead

If Convergence 2016 will serve as an indicator of anything in the Microsoft Dynamics ecosystem, it will be how well Microsoft has navigated its ongoing product marketing and management transition. The event could very likely be smaller next year, but if it can verifiably attract and satisfy an underserved audience of strategic thinkers in the customer base, that may be the best possible outcome for Microsoft and its partners.