Dynamics CRM is a great system for managing your customer data. “Alright, so can you tell me how do I upload all my customer document folders in here?” Well, you don’t. Or more precisely, you better not do it. You see, while it’s more than likely that you have lots of files regarding your existing and potential customers, putting these into your customer relationship management system is rarely a sensible approach. Let me illustrate a few issues that you will encounter if trying to use file attachments in Dynamics CRM as document management solution.
Due to some recent announcements on pricing & functionality related updates in Microsoft’s cloud based services in April 2012, I decided to do a little comparison of storage costs between three services. SkyDrive, a consumer focused product that has very recently acquired Dropbpx-like skills of synchronizing content from one or more client PC’s (or mobile devices) into the cloud. SharePoint Online, the SaaS edition of Microsoft’s collaboration / content management platform that’s currently licensed to around 125 million business users around the world in all it’s editions. Finally, CRM Online, the Microsoft hosted version of Dynamics CRM. All of these products include some base level quota for storage, but since the subscription prices per user are not really comparable due to the application functionality included in each, I’ve instead chosen to compare what is the cost of an additional 50 GB storage on each service.
See the percentage difference in the table when compared to SkyDrive? While a pure file system storage service in the cloud for consumers is practically free these days, as we move towards more structured databases with metadata and workflow related functionality wrapped around the file, things tend to get more expensive. SharePoint Online has just recently cut it’s storage prices by a whopping 92%, yet it remains almost five times as expensive as SkyDrive. Since the price per GB on Dynamics CRM Online has not changed (at least yet), CRM in turn is 50 times as expensive as SharePoint Online. (Note: storage space ain’t cheap on other cloud based CRM systems either, including Salesforce.com).
Ok, so maybe you’re managing your own servers and SAN’s, which means the direct cost per GB isn’t dramatically different between file shares and database blobs. Let’s look at some application level features that will affect your CRM users nonetheless.
If we put our files into a structured database that has lots of customer information already, surely that makes them easier to discover when needed? Well, to some extent it does, but not necessarily the way you’d expect. “Did I attach that document to an account, opportunity or contract?” When it comes to Dynamics CRM, you’ll need to be able to answer this question before performing your search, as there is no out-of-the-box way to perform search across multiple entities. Also, instead of entering a natural search phrase like “online migration scribe”, you’ll need to build your query one parameter at a time in Advanced Find, specifying which values should be found in which field or related entity.
Chances are you found this blog post through Google. That’s the way us humans tend to find what we’re looking for nowadays: free text searches on whichever keywords we have in our minds, rather than selecting a combination of attribute values that correspond to the parent object of the file we are after. Oh, and in case you wanted to search for text from inside the document, forget about it. Attachment contents is not indexed in Dynamics CRM, only fields on the entities directly are available for the search tools.
Do you ever need to revise the documents you’ve once created? Having the file as an attachment on a CRM record doesn’t quite give you the same kind of flexibility as a network drive or a document management system. You can’t directly open a document from the system into your MS Word, start editing it and save the changes. Rather you’ll need to store it temporarily on your local hard drive, then upload it back to CRM. The number of clicks and dialog windows involved in the process will not exactly encourage your end users to share information through CRM if they need to go through these steps repeatedly.
How about archiving different revisions of the document? Let’s not even go there, at least with CRM alone.
What should we do with our files then?
While it’s certainly not the end all, be all solution for document management, you should definitely give SharePoint a go and see if it delivers the type of functionality your CRM users would benefit from. The built-in integration between Dynamics CRM 2011 and SharePoint 2010/Online removes much of the pain points mentioned above. Even though it may not cover all the customer document management scenarios directly (access rights, custom folder/site structures etc.), storing files in SharePoint document libraries instead of Dynamics CRM will automatically help you address many of the aforementioned issues related to content search, storage and editing. Also, the CRM SDK provides further extension points for SharePoint document management functionality development, combination with SharePoint’s extension points. You can see an example of such a scenario in this post on the CRM Consultancy blog.
Thanks to the cloud version of SharePoint Online supporting Dynamics CRM integration starting from November last year, you can easily test the document management functionality in your existing Dynamics CRM 2011 / Online environment by signing up for an Office 365 trial account. With Office 365 E package subscriptions starting at € 7.25 per user per month, even if you’d use the whole subscription for nothing more than complementing the functionality of your CRM system, the cost wouldn’t be all that high, just 18% of a CRM Online subscription price.
Better yet, if you sign up for Office 365 first and then later on purchase CRM Online, you’ll gain the luxury of using a single Microsoft Online login across both systems (see this post for the steps). Others will need to keep using Windows Live ID for Dynamics CRM until the transition to a single platform on Microsoft’s end has been completed sometime in the future.