The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies of all sizes to shift business practices. Technology plays an increasingly important role as organizations enable remote work and contactless engagement. Microsoft showcased many examples of how companies were transforming their business at the Microsoft Business Applications Summit. Alysa Taylor, Corporate Vice President Microsoft Business Applications & Global Industry, launched her keynote with a discussion of how the world and Microsoft have changed. “This is a whole new era for us. Historically, big transformation initiatives that would happen over the years have condensed out of necessity to weeks or even in days.”

Systems that enable agility are critical. Microsoft’s Taylor described how L’Oreal expanded from manufacturing beauty products to creating hand sanitizers as an example of how technology can support adaptive, flexible businesses.  Companies are also moving faster with their deployments. For example, C3.ai  moved from selecting to deploying Dynamics 365 within several weeks.

Taylor spoke of how Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform were helping companies move from reactive to proactive business workflows where employees could take intelligent actions based on data. Today, everything from connected devices to data in the supply chain and collaborative applications is a source of potential insight.  Microsoft describes this as a digital feedback loop that captures and utilizes information from products, assets, customers and people (employees). Each touchpoint offers more data that enhances the feedback. Microsoft also highlighted the importance of having a cloud strategy where you can securely store data and comply with nation-state regulations.

Enter Microsoft with the mega stack.

Unfortunately, IT struggles to incorporate this type of context into legacy apps. Companies need to redesign or purchase solutions that can integrate and analyze data from a wide range of sources.

None of these concepts are new. What’s different today is that vendors, such as Microsoft, are delivering more comprehensive portfolios. In the past two years, Microsoft integrated various assets from app development to customer engagement into what it calls the Power Platform, which includes Power BI, Power Apps, Power Automate, and Power Virtual Agent. Many of the tools were design to allow everyone, not just professional developers and data scientists, to create applications and analyze data. Additionally, Microsoft integrated these functions with the Dynamics 365 applications and Azure to enable a closed-loop process from data collection through insight and action.

Leading companies are delivering rich customer experiences.

The Microsoft Business Applications Summit is typically an event where customers come to showcase and share ideas on how to use Microsoft’s technology. With the change to a virtual event, Microsoft took the lead in sharing how its customers are delivering proactive and intelligent engagement. For example:

Chipotle creates a data-driven customer profile.

It uses a combination of Microsoft’s Power Platform, Dynamics 365 Customer Insights and Azure to unify the company’s current customer information and enrich the customer profile with proprietary signals from the Microsoft Graph. Chipotle leveraged its existing investment and third-party sources using connectors in the Microsoft platform to create a 360 view of the customer from multiple data sources, such as the point of sale transactions, digital transactions, reward information, web, and mobile usage data.

With a unified customer profile, Chipotle can create segments that provide important insights, such as loyalty members and frequent repeat customers. Chipotle can analyze the average spend across regions and use that data to prioritization decisions. Additionally, Chipotle can connect to Microsoft power automate to trigger workflows, in response to customer actions and signals in real-time. For example, when a customer places an order and completes the purchase on a mobile app, the customer profile is instantly updated. These customer profiles and new engagement models are even more important in a world where Chipolte has to deliver contactless engagement.

Companies want to provide the right information to their employees at the right-time. Lopez Research calls these a right-time experience (RTE). For example, by scanning a customer’s QR code in the app, the store associate can see the full purchase history, and all past activities, all in one place. This information enables the store associate to provide the next best actions, such as a pre-delivery for the following order, based on analyzing contextual data stored in the cloud for scalable processing. Using tools such as Azure synapse analytics, organizations can ingest operations and other streaming data at petabyte scale, allowing them to develop custom AI and machine learning models.

Chateau St. Michelle uses Dynamics 365 to shift from in-winery to online sales.

Cloud computing and SaaS services have been critical in allowing companies to work remotely and offer new services. Chateau St Michelle talked of how it had to shut down and move to a new facility during the COVID crisis, which it said would have been impossible if they were using homegrown customer systems. Initially, 90% of the direct consumer was through the wineries, and 10% was via e-commerce. In the last couple of weeks, Chateau St Michelle flipped to 90% via e-commerce, completely changing its distribution model within a few hours using the Microsoft suite.

IKEA improves the multi-channel sales process and workforce management.

IKEA uses the power platform and Dynamics 365 to create a better omnichannel experience. Microsoft showcased how IKEA combined online kitchen cabinet configuration, virtual agents, power automate and Dynamics 365 resource scheduling to improve the customer’s kitchen design experience. In creating conversation interfaces, IKEA was able to use the Microsoft tracing feature that allows the app developer to simulate what a customer would experience and then see how a chatbot would respond.

IKEA employees use power apps on a tablet to improve the customer’s in-store experience. IKEA used power apps data connectors so it could leverage existing systems. Microsoft’s UI flow provided the capability to connect legacy application data and new data into a business process. It took the project a step further by using mixed reality, which meant it could add kitchen visualization to the app without the team needing to understand AR Kit, 3D models, and writing code.

While the focus on the customer is vital, the solution must provide the right information to IKEA’s employees as well. For example, IKEA’s store managers can use Power BI to visualize all the booked appointments, where the appointments originated (online or in-store), and view the close rate for in-store appointments. It also uses Microsoft’s resource scheduling to ensure it has the right number of employees to support demand at various times.

Are we there yet?

Microsoft upped its game in Dynamics 365 and made itself more relevant by integrating with other products in its portfolio, such as the Power Platform and Azure cloud services. Yet, this brings up a consistent technology buyer lament where the buyer says it only works if they purchase many products from a single vendor. In truth, the buyers have a solid point. Vendor lock-in is a legitimate concern. However, the counterpoint is that it takes significant integration across multiple products to deliver an accurate 365-degree view of the customer. The integration work is time-consuming, challenging and quickly breaks down if any one piece of the puzzle changes.

A company can’t and shouldn’t source everything from one vendor. However, a company should be looking for a modern suite of pre-integrated products that allow them to leverage legacy apps through connectors where necessary. Companies have multiple CRM, ERP and homegrown systems. Microsoft spoke on how it can use the hundreds of connectors it created in the Power Platform to help companies build specific business process workflows that pull together legacy systems and solve problems off-the-shelf applications can’t. A new suite should also provide enhancements such as machine learning, visualization, and easy workflow creation. Ideally, it would be modular and cloud-native.

Is everything as easy as Microsoft made it sound? Probably not. It never is easy for an organization to make these transformations. However, Microsoft made its solutions more powerful and easier to use. At the summit, Microsoft said over half of the Fortune 500 are leveraging Dynamics 365, and the company achieved a 50% year over year growth in the Dynamics 365 business. It would be hard to argue that the company’s strategy isn’t working.

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