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Do you enjoy reading news and thoughts from the world of Microsoft Dynamics CRM but wish that you could consume such content also in a “hands free” mode, by having someone talk about them rather than publish their thoughts in writing? Well hey: that’s what podcasts are for! If you’re looking for episodes to download to your favorite podcast app on your smartphone, then here’s a couple of channels to subscribe to: CRM Rocks by Markus Erlandsson, started already back in 2013, and a newcomer from this year called CRM Audio, hosted by everyone’s favorite CRM Tipsters: Joel Lindstrom, George Doubinski and Shawn Tabor.
Why did I bring this topic up then? It just so happens that I’ve done yet another guest appearance on CRM Rocks! Yes, you might remember yours truly from classic episodes like “CRM 2013 User Interface Changes” or “Who Is The Customer in Your CRM?” This time I had the pleasure of joining Markus in the studio and discussing a topic I had blogged about a while earlier, meaning The State of Microsoft Dynamics CRM in 2015.
The topics on our agenda for this episode included the following:
- Release cadence & CRM 2015 Update 1
- Office 365 integration points with Excel Online, OneNote, Office Groups
- The arrival of the CRM web client for Outlook (3 years after its announcement)
- Cloud first: why is on-premises lagging behind
- The new organization structure at Microsoft
- Dynamics moving from the old MBS unit to Cloud + Enterprise
- Why CRM product development needs better alignment with MS Data Platform
- The remaining divide between Office and Dynamics
- Microsoft & Salesforce partnership
- New MS co-opetition strategy on devices, now also in the business cloud
- What the rumored acquisition of Salesforce would have meant
- The two horse CRM race and competitors pushing each other to innovate (and imitate)
- CRM 2016 Release Preview Guide highlights
- New modern API & next generation web client
- Improvements in document generation and content search
- Mobility with offline, task based applications
Yeah, so many interesting things going on in the world of Dynamics and only an hour to discuss them. So, what did Markus and me end up covering in our talk? There’s only one way to find out and that is listening to the latest episode of CRM Rocks. By the way, if you have any thoughts on who you’d like to see (well, hear) make an appearance on the show and what CRM related topic should get some air time, then be sure to leave a comment either here or ping Markus directly.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention: I also took part in a recent CRM MVP Panel on MSDynamicsWorld.com with Chris Cognetta, Donna Edwards, Alex Fagundes and Gretchen Opferkew. We talked about some of the same topics as in the podcast, with a focus around the upcoming Dynamics CRM 2016 release and how to prepare for it, so in case you missed the live event, be sure to check out the recording available on YouTube.
In case you missed the announcement last week, Microsoft has acquired Adxstudio. This is simply wonderful news for anyone working with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, for a number of reasons. First of all, the Adxstudio Portals product brings in a critical piece of functionality that has so far been missing from Microsoft’s own portfolio, which is surfacing the information and processes of CRM to external parties via integrated web portals. Second, the amount of knowledge and real-life experience that will be brought into the Dynamics CRM product team on topics like solution management, ALM practices and in general the life of an ISV partner in the Dynamics ecosystem is bound to make Microsoft’s product offering even better in the future.
The third point, and the main topic of this blog post, is that in my eyes this acquistion validates one very important aspect when it comes to Dynamics CRM as a business application platform: XRM is alive and kicking. In order to understand why I think that way & why it makes a big difference to the Dynamics CRM ecosystem, we need to look back a bit and understand what’s been happening on the acquisitions front during the past few years.
Let’s Go Shopping
It is not that uncommon for enterprise software vendors to grow their solution portfolio by acquiring companies rather than organically developing new products and features. This timeline from a few years ago demonstrated how Oracle and Salesforce were buying companies related to Social CRM technology. (Funnily enough, the company who posted the timeline was first acquired by ExactTarget, which then got sold to Salesforce within 1 year from that post.) Microsoft hasn’t been quite as active in this shopping spree as some of its competitors, but they do seem to have picked up the pace during the past few years.
Are acquisitions a smart way to spend cash then? Back in the days when Microsoft bought Yammer, the price of $1.2 billion was questioned by many. Three years later the valuation of Slack, which you could call “the Yammer of 2015”, is set at $2.8 billion. Once you get to the “three commas” level, the traditional laws of physics no longer apply, meaning it’s not about technology underneath the product or anything else tangible that sets the price tag for a company. So, instead of handing out investment tips to the big boys in the “,,,” club, let’s discuss a more down to earth aspect of software company acquisitions: integrating the new technology with the old.
In these days of cloud based services with open API’s, it’s really not that difficult to develop a bit of code that will allow you add a bullet into your marketing materials, claiming “X now integrates with Z”! Heck, with services like Zapier or IFTTT, even a code illiterate geek like me could take two applications from the consumer or business space and make them talk with one another, just by setting up the business logic via point & click configuration in a browser window. If I’d want to push tweets with a negative sentiment into Dynamics CRM as support tickets, all I really need is to watch a video from Azuqua, sign up for their subscription service and click my way through the process shown below.
In the marketing speak, any software integration will always described as “seamless”. The reality of what you can actually achieve via the integration (if anything) may not become apparent until it is validated in a real-life use case that takes into consideration the variations in configuration & data contents found in live systems, executing an end-to-end business process rather than a simple data exchange between two IT systems. In practice, a cloud application vendor that promises to integrate with 20 different CRM platforms is unlikely to understand very much at all about the built-in logic of each target system, nor the specific use cases in which organizations wish to leverage such integrated features.
Integrating pieces of software together isn’t a very unique task. After all, that’s the origin behind the term “systems integrator” that’s sometimes used when referring to consulting companies that deploy enterprise IT systems like CRM software and stitch it together with other systems. Integrating actual products, on the other hand, is a much more challenging task than just integrating software. Not only do you need to deliver a solution that adapts to the needs of many customers instead of one, but you also must be able to align the capabilities of all the related products in your portfolio in such a way that makes sense to the customers and end users. Avoiding redundancy and overlap while still smoothly transitioning the old & new users towards the new, truly seamless experience that delivers on the promises made regarding the integration – yeah, I can imagine that being a bit of a product management challenge for sure.
Microsoft’s Acquisition & Integration Track Record
The list of acquisitions Microsoft has made in the recent years that involved product functionality related to Dynamics CRM includes the following notable examples:
- Skype (2011) – At $8.5B, this was the biggest MSFT acquisition to date and the Skype brand has since then replaced Lync as the telephony/messaging brand for consumers and businesses alike.
- Yammer (2012) – Another big one. The whole social revolution in information work meant MSFT needed to make both their products as well as product development processes more like that startup & viral model of Yammer and less like that traditional enterprise software world of Office & co.
- MarketingPilot (2012) – Although not primarily a marketing automation solution for digital channels originally, the MP acquisition was transformed into Microsoft Dynamics Marketing (MDM) to attract the CMO’s with an technology budget that would soon pass that of the CIO.
- Netbreeze (2013) – While Yammer targeted the internal social collaboration scenarios in organizations, monitoring the public social media channels needed a separate channel. Enter Netbreeze with it’s initial Microsoft Social Listening brand and the later reincarnation as Social Engagement (MSE).
- Parature (2014) – Along with marketing resources targeted to social channels at a growing pace, the customer service work also moved away from call centers into online support portals and customer reps communicating via services like Facebook. Parature was the answer to meeting the market demand on this front.
For each of these products it was easy to come up with numerous scenarios in which the organizations using Dynamics CRM could benefit from embedding this new technology into being a part of the sales, marketing and service processes managed via CRM, linked directly into the account & contact records, thus promising to deliver that a true 360 view of the customer relationship. Of course the mere change of ownership for the IPR behind these acquired technologies didn’t yet change anything in the physical world that would make such scenarios become reality. How would these new pieces of the puzzle in practice be fitted together with the existing big picture was the important question to ask. Would 1 and 1 be 2+, or closer to “one point something”?
At the time of acquisition, there were some existing integrations to Dynamics CRM available for Yammer and Parature. If we take the former as an example, then there was obvious overlap between Yammer and CRM’s own Activity Feeds feature that was introduced to the platform on the year before. While Yammer of course has far more end user functionality available in its own application, on the Dynamics CRM side there’s actually quite a lot less that we can do with these type of social posts in the business process context than with the native Activity Feeds feature of CRM. Since the posts are now split into two different feeds (Yammer and “System Posts”) inside two different databases with two different security models and several different client application UI’s, it’s not so obvious that this new integrated world is a better fit for all Dynamics CRM customer organizations. (For a discussion on the future of Yammer & CRM, check out this blog post from Gustaf Westerlund.)
Looking at a larger integration effort, Microsoft took the foundation of MarketingPilot and rebuilt much of it to create Dynamics Marketing, but they still decided to keep it as a separate application that can be used with or without Dynamics CRM. So, what does this mean for CRM customers then? Looking at the surface, the main application navigation is identical between MDM and CRM, but the form and view controls presented to the end user have different logic in each application. The system administrator cannot perform similar UI and data model customization on MDM than what the CRM platform provides. Microsoft offers a connector service hosted on Azure that synchronizes data between CRM and MDM databases, but the scope is limited to a set of predefined record types. As an end result, while you get a wealth of marketing resource management functionality via MDM, there will be limitations on how you can integrate the solution to act as part of you specific business processes and data model configured into Dynamics CRM.
Doing It The XRM Way
If as an independent application architect it was clear to you from day one that the product you’ve set out to build should work in the most seamless way for Dynamics CRM customers, you probably wouldn’t first develop a separate application and then start thinking about how to connect it with the CRM database. In such a scenario your architecture design would most likely start from the core of the customer data and business processes that CRM is typically used for managing, as you would want to ensure that your solution is well aligned with the installed base of Dynamics CRM organizations out there. Next you would take a look at what functionality the XRM platform offers that could be leveraged as the building blocks of your own solution, to avoid time spent on developing the “plumbing” already available in each CRM deployment where your application would operate. Only after this would you go and build the external services needed in delivering your application’s functionality, by connecting to other systems, presenting data in non-CRM user interfaces where needed, enforcing licensing policies for your product etc.
The XRM way of developing products has clear benefits not only to the solution provider but most importantly to the organization using the product. The user identities and access rights have a single administration point, the user experience is likely more familiar to your CRM users, you have no application interfaces to configure or manage and the data will (mostly) sit inside the same database as your existing customer account and contact information. Most importantly, from a functional perspective, you can keep on building your business specific processes and reporting for the XRM applications in the same way as you would customize your Dynamics CRM application. If you’re seriously investing in CRM as your business process hub, doesn’t that all sound quite tempting?
Also Microsoft appears to have understood the temptation behind such a model, since the Dynamics related acquisitions it has made during this year for the most part have XRM written all over them:
- Mojo Surveys: Design surveys inside CRM, by modeling the questionnaires as CRM entities and tracking the detailed response data back to the customer records. Will be include in CRM 2016 release as a Survey Designer / “Voice of The Customer” feature. Pure XRM ISV solution from Fusion Software, who still continue to work on similar non-MS products like CRM SalesFlow.
- FieldOne: Field service solution that started out in 2001 with a bit more classic approach for their “Terra” product, then bet the farm on XRM and rewrote it as “Sky”. Built on top of Dynamics CRM and also leverages other leading ISV solutions like Resco for mobility and Scribe for integration. Oh, and coincidentally, Adxstudio for their service portals.
- FantasySalesTeam: The only non-XRM product on this acquisition list. Well, I guess it doesn’t hurt MS to have some apps in their portfolio that integrate with Oracle Sales Cloud and the likes…
- Adxstudio: If there ever was a prime example of an XRM application, it would have to be Adxstudio Portals. Their solution was already included as a part of CRM 2011 SDK to replace the earlier Portal Accelerator, and now the circle is complete. With up to 128 custom entities, Adx hasn’t been afraid to use Dynamics as a true XRM platform, all the while offering the critical missing piece that would connect the internal facing business applications with the customer facing websites.
Depending on what’s the position of your application in relation to CRM, it’s of course not mandatory for it to be fully baked into the XRM platform for it to deliver great value to end users. Also, if Microsoft were to just keep on buying more and more ISV solutions into their product portfolio and assimilating them all into one big CRM suite, there’s a potential risk of ending up with a SAP-esque enterprise monolith that’s no longer serving the needs of the customers (by the way, for anyone interested on some insights on the current state of the “SAP nation”, I recommend reading the book by the same name).
Still, I for one am much more optimistic about the recent XRM based acquisitions when it comes to the expected time to value for customers and partners, as there shouldn’t be a pressing need for MS to rearchitect these solutions to try and integrate them with the existing Dynamics CRM product offering. From our perspective, they’ve been done right from the start. In a couple of years time I think we should reflect back on these different acquisitions made, to see if XRM truly got its revenge or not.
Those who have worked with Dynamics CRM for a longer period of time will remember how the user experience delivered by the platform has evolved over time: from an Office style, data entry focused, Internet Explorer popup window application into the clean and modern Dynamics CRM 2015 application that works on any device and aims to present the maximum amount of relevant information to the user with the minimum amount of clicks. There was a time when CRM didn’t exactly seem like something that was designed with the needs of the end user in mind, but this direction changed quite drastically from the CRM Online December 2012 Service Update onwards, as Microsoft started to redesign the experiences they wanted to deliver for the users of their business applications in the new era where mobile, social and cloud were quickly becoming the most dominating forces in the world of enterprise software. Not forgetting the consumerization of IT, which had shown people that not every app used in a work context needed to look like a 90’s ERP system.
I have covered this transition in quite a bit of detail in my four part article series titled “Dynamics CRM Platform Evolution”, which I’d recommend you to read through for understanding the practical impact of moving from the “first era” of MS CRM v1-v5 onto the current era of largely CRM Online focused rapid product iterations. One of the points I raised in the article was that not all the CRM software providers in the market had chosen to follow a similar path of introducing a big bang revolution to their application. Unlike Microsoft, Salesforce.com had instead opted for an evolutionary path that had seen their application UI remain almost unchanged for the main components and layout, as depicted in the image below.
While being wildly successful in becoming the “next CRM application” after the 90’s generation of Siebel style, on-premises enterprise CRM suites had began to slide out of the limelight, Salesforce also began to receive a growing amount of criticism over the legacy that its user interface had accumulated over its history. The question of “Why doesn’t Salesforce upgrade the UI/UX of its core CRM web app?” did seem more and more valid, especially when competing products like Dynamics CRM were transforming the user experience that one could expect from a customer relationship management application. Well, finally in late August 2015, Salesforce announced that their next era of CRM UX would arrive in the form of the new Salesforce Lightning UI.
Welcome to the Future of CRM, Salesforce!
First of all, congratulations to the product team behind the Lightning UI on the launch! Pulling off a major redesign like this is bound to be a massive task and I’m sure in many ways the work has only begun now, but it’s still definitely an achievement worth celebrating. As many of you may have noticed, in my day job I work exclusively with Microsoft Dynamics CRM, so whatever I write here about a competing CRM solution is not going to be 100% objective. For that I apologize, but the point of my post isn’t to bash Salesforce but rather to analyze some of the trends in CRM software in general and also reflect back a bit on what has taken place in the world of Dynamics CRM during the past few years.
But first, I need to just get something out of the way. Damn how these two apps look alike! Here’s the brand new opportunity form on Salesforce Lightning UI, a.k.a. Opportunity Workspace:
…And here’s how the opportunity form on Dynamics CRM has looked like pretty much since the 2013 version:
Notice any resemblance? Let me help you out a bit by listing the first five things that come to my mind from the Salesforce screenshot:
- Sales Path for visualizing the sales process stages and related fields, known as Business Process Flow in Dynamics CRM
- Tabs for switching between related activities and social posts, known as the Social Pane in Dynamics CRM
- Composer for adding new tasks, phone calls and events to the opportunity, which simply is an inline activity quick create form in Dynamics CRM
- Related information on Contact Roles, essentially the Stakeholders editable grid in Dynamics CRM
- Persistent four header fields at the top of the form, ditto for Dynamics CRM
Yeah, of course these both are applications for managing your typical sales opportunity information with activities and contacts, so its understandable that the concepts used in the default screens would be unlikely to radically differ from one another. Still, contrasting Lighting UI with the traditional Salesforce UI and looking at how close to the now familiar Dynamics CRM form layout, UI controls and especially the Business Process Flow feature the Salesforce product team has ended up with their design is, well… Quite remarkable in my opinion. Not a bad choice by any means, and also serves in validating the direction that Microsoft’s team took when overhauling their application’s UI a couple of years ago.
Aside from the similarity to Dynamics CRM, there are plenty of nice looking designs and features included in the Salesforce Winter ’16 release notes. Some of them are about filling the functional gaps to Dynamics CRM (list view charts known from CRM 2011 make an appearance here), others are borrowing concepts from the more recent CRM apps out there (Kanban style opportunity board used in Pipedrive, Pipeliner et al., as well as SalesFlow for Dynamics CRM), but many of the release items seem to be focused on fine tuning the application usability and removing unnecessary friction from common tasks that sales people need to perform on a daily basis. Rather than just slapping on a new field layout and updating the icons, it does seem like the user experience of Salesforce will change quite dramatically with Lightning. Of course the true UX can only be evaluated once a live version of the application is available for testing how it truly feels like to use the app, but at this point it looks like a major step forward.
The Price of Revolution
Introducing a new application user experience to new users who don’t have prior experience of the product will always be far easier than forcing it upon the existing user base. While few people would say that they don’t want a nice & easy UI, the reality is that resistance to change is always a factor when dealing with human beings. When it comes to business software especially, disruptive changes are at the very bottom of the want list for the majority of people who are responsible for ensuring that information systems deployed for managing the core business processes of their organization keep on churning out the expected results. What’s going to happen when a CRM system jumps from evolutionary releases to revolutionary changes instead?
The one important thing to keep in mind is that changes like this never take place overnight. Migrating over all the functionality that vast application platforms like Salesforce of Dynamics CRM have accumulated over time isn’t something you can get away with a single big bang release. With Microsoft there was a preview version of the new UX introduced with the Online only Polaris release, launched almost one year ahead of the actual major release of CRM 2013 (v6.0). Initially only five core entities were updated to the new “refreshed” forms, and even today the latest v7.1 still contains lots and lots of entities and menus that follow the old Ribbon based user experience. So, three years later the work isn’t even done for the Dynamics CRM product team in renewing the platform, which means that the end users and system customizers need to cope with a somewhat mixed application environment. The platform legacy becomes most apparent with the new mobile client applications that don’t support the old product architecture, resulting in features like marketing lists or connections not being available on the modern client versions. Sure, life is much, much better with the new UX, but it has also introduced some new complexities into the product.
In the case of Salesforce, the story sounds to be somewhat similar, as not every area of their platform will be Lightning enabled right from the start. The Service Cloud will not yet be updated, nor will features like forecasting, orders or person accounts. In moments like these it’s always interesting to see how companies prioritize their development efforts, as they are likely to indicate either the observed level of usage for certain features of their products, or alternatively possible future plans to scrap something old and rebuild it from the ground up. If you’re working as a consultant that advises customers on what features they should take into use or invest in developing for their CRM systems, the messages conveyed by the application vendors via the frequency of updates to certain functional areas of their products are signals you’ll most certainly take into consideration when deciding on what strategy to recommend to your client base.
With 150k customers and millions of users, it’s going to take a while before Salesforce will have safely moved each and every one into the Lightning world. In fact, based on the statement by Sara Varni, senior VP of marketing for SFDC Sales Cloud, this milestone may never even be reached, since Salesforce will support the classic experience “indefinitely”. In the oldskool settings of on-premises servers, the way this could have been handled would be for the customers just sticking to an older version of the software and not deploying any updates. When you’re the grandaddy of SaaS platforms, things are obviously a bit different and supporting older versions will require more than just accepting support tickets for ancients releases of your software. With CRM Online, Microsoft has previously been pretty strict on getting every customer to move on to the latest version via the CDU (Customer Driven Update) program, but lately they’ve also changed their update policy to allow skipping the bi-annual releases and updating only once per year. As SaaS products become a more mature market, I bet we’ll be seeing a growing number of options for customers to choose which versions to use, which features to activate and when to schedule these changes to take place.
The way Salesforce chose to build their next generation UI is different from the path that Microsoft took. While Dynamics CRM 2013 introduced both the new web client experience as well as the “MoCA” tablet client application as separate experiences (followed by the refreshed mobile app in CRM 2015 Update 1), Salesforce decided to first build the Lightning framework for their Salesforce1 mobile app and then scale it out to the PC screens. As a result, the screenshots that we see in the Winter ’16 release notes look very much like a mobile app placed onto the screen of an iMac. While you could in theory also use the Dynamics CRM for Tablets app on a Windows 8/10 laptop, the users will certainly almost always end up choosing the Dynamics CRM web client designed for interaction with mouse & keyboard rather than touch optimized “Metro” experience.
I think this will be one of the most interesting design choices to keep an eye on when it comes to user reactions to the new Salesforce Lightning UI. Regardless of all the recent Universal Apps hype that Microsoft has been building up alongside the Windows 10 release, I’m personally not quite convinced yet that you can deliver a great UX with a single app that needs to scale from 5″ touch screens to 27″ desktop monitors. As a result, I’m also not a big proponent of the “configure once, deploy everywhere” slogan used in reference to the Dynamics CRM mobile apps, since I’d rather see CRM applications truly optimized for the device and use case in question. However, if Salesforce can pull this off with Lightning, then perhaps Microsoft has been right all along with their OS strategy and the application teams should now move faster towards unifying the client side of things.
Applification of Platforms?
When it comes to products like Dynamics CRM or Salesforce, one of the key reasons why they are being so widely deployed across enterprises today is the ability to customize them to align with the business processes specific to the customer organization. They are not only replacing legacy CRM suites but also capturing an ever larger share of the market that used to belong to custom developed business software, since using a customizable application platform delivered from the public cloud can really drive down the TCO quite significantly. But if the CRM applications are now reaching towards an even more polished user experience in performing common tasks with sales, marketing and service records, what will happen to supporting the business specific scenarios that are more unique than what pre-built application features can cover?
When Microsoft launched the Dynamics CRM 2013 version with the refreshed UI, they didn’t only add more features into the already crammed product, but rather they took away some configuration options that had been previously expected from the platform. As the saying goes about the goal of design work, “perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” That may very well be true when designing a product to serve a specific set of tasks, but it may not resonate so well with a toolkit used for crafting these end products. Limiting the options shown to an end users is different from limiting the options available to the designer of the final solution that the user will be exposed to.
How do such limitations show up in everyday life with the latest Dynamics CRM version? Today we have inline quick create forms for effortlessly adding activities for records, but we can no longer choose if we want to record a future phone call activity instead of a completed one. We can use an editable grid for adding line items into opportunities, quotes and orders, but we can’t configure these grids to contain those fields that the business logic would require to be recorded onto these line items. The price of added convenience for some is therefore resulting in the reduced usefulness to others. Looking at the Salesforce Winter ’16 release, it’s apparent that also here the polished UX will be come at the cost of reduced options. For example, there will be a brand new, great looking Home screen offered for sales users, but the components shown in it cannot be customized at this time.
Is there an inherent conflict between the needs of the application end user and the platform customizer? I don’t believe this is necessarily the case, but it is obvious that there are trade offs in building something that works great and building something configurable when it comes to the allocation of development resources for these software products. As the release cycles get faster and faster, the pressure for getting a new feature out there can mean there’s no time to perfect the first version into something that will meet the needs of all user groups and align with the rest of the platform functionality. The real question is, will the features be made more customizable in the subsequent releases, or will the requirements be pushed down in the backlog when the demand for more new features arises?
When discussing the user experience of applications that are not commodity services like email but highly business specific process management tools (at least when properly deployed), it’s very important to understand what the final UX really consists of. It’s not only about having the slickest UI controls for working with the data, the flashiest graphics for visualizing the sales pipeline or most creative layouts for presenting different data sources on one screen. At the end of the day, the users need to feel like they can easily accomplish the tasks they are responsible for, with the help of the application – not despite of it. Understanding what exactly those tasks are and what pieces of information are relevant to the process of their completion is something that requires careful analysis conducted at the organization deploying a new CRM solution. Failure to do this will quickly wash away any value that the software features could have potentially delivered to the organization.
As today’s CRM platforms become more and more sophisticated with the functionality and data presentation options available, the design work of those who configure the customer specific solutions also needs to be aligned with the increasing expectation levels for application usability. It’s still not rocket science, but it does require a greater attention to detail than the earlier, more primitive business applications where the UI was essentially a reflection of the data model. I’ve illustrated some of these design aspects in my 10 Tips for Designing A Great User Experience presentation, which hopefully can give an idea of how the system customizers can do their part in building CRM systems that the business users will find great value in – a Useful Experience, if you will.