The Crunch: From inventory and shipping to customer engagement, companies are constantly gathering data and trying to make sense of it. When Microsoft created the powerful software suite dubbed Microsoft Dynamics 365, the goal was to allow companies of any size to run their businesses in the cloud and use intelligence to seamlessly integrate CRM, ERP, and productivity applications, including software within the Microsoft Office suite. Consistent information and insights across all of a company’s applications can lead to increased productivity and a unified business logic that drives growth. Superior software is what customers have come to expect from a tech company that spends $10 billion annually on R&D.
Data analysis jobs are growing 27% annually — more than double the average for job growth in the U.S. What’s driving this trend is that companies are recognizing the value of analytics in guiding business strategies and decisions.
Advancements in technology are helping companies decode the data, and they are benefiting from the ability to gather and organize customer insights and operate across multiple channels in a cohesive manner. And when businesses provide greater personalization, consumers get a better experience.
It was with this dual purpose that Ashley Furniture Industries turned to the Microsoft Dynamics 365 suite of retail solutions to help drive the company’s expansion and improve customer engagement.
Operating a massive multi-national company while still catering to customers in a personalized way can be a complicated endeavor. Harnessing the power of Cortana Intelligence™, which is what Microsoft calls its intelligent personal assistant software, Microsoft has developed cloud-based business solutions that work for companies of all sizes while maintaining an intense focus on scalability. After all, what company isn’t looking to increase its operations?
“Some businesses come to us when they’re quite small, and equally some of them come to us when they’ve outgrown their existing solutions,” said Karen Garrette, Global Director of Retail Industry Solutions for Microsoft. “So once they come to us, they know they can stay with us no matter how big they get.”
Microsoft Dynamics 365 gives smaller businesses a practical, out-of-the-box offering that will do everything they need, from point of sale to supply chain, and it’s structured to be able to scale up from one store to thousands of stores. Meanwhile, enterprise-grade businesses are choosing Microsoft for its global reach and the flexibility of being able to choose the parts of the solution that suit their business needs.
As an enterprise client, Ashley Furniture continues to expand its operations. The company functioned as a furniture supplier for more than 50 years before deciding to open a chain of Ashley Furniture HomeStores. The first store opened in 1997, and the chain now employs more than 20,000 employees, 4,000 of whom work in its 520 HomeStore locations.
The logistics involved in managing such a large number of employees across hundreds of stores and warehouses requires organization. So, Microsoft Dynamics seamlessly integrates CRM, ERP, and productivity software to make sense of all the data, giving Ashley Furniture a competitive advantage over other furniture retailers.
Ashley Furniture, which earned $4 billion in 2014, is not done growing and has set a goal to reach $10 billion in earnings per year by 2020. With Microsoft by its side, Ashley Furniture can feel comfortable knowing all of its software needs will be met no matter how much the company grows.
Breaking Down the Barriers Between Traditional CRM & ERP Software
An early obstacle for Microsoft when creating Microsoft Dynamics was finding a way to integrate enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) software. Those delineations resulted from ERP software vendors concentrating on taking care of clients’ back-office operations and CRM software vendors seeking to create better customer experiences.
“The goal was to break down the barriers between traditional CRM and ERP software,” said Angela Bandlow, Senior Director for Microsoft Dynamics 365. “So when we think about business applications and how we’re approaching them, we start with the concept of being purpose-filled. It’s having these applications that run independently for a specific function, like sales or customer service, but they work together seamlessly.”
Microsoft is known for its Office suite, which includes familiar productivity applications like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Exchange, and OneNote, as well as other industry apps such as Skype. Dynamics seamlessly integrates these apps — used by many employees every day — with other business applications.
Productivity dips when employees are switching between applications because it takes them out of the context of what they’re doing, Angela said. Microsoft combats this with applications that work together in an intelligent way and keeps employees focused. Angela described what this looks like in action.
“This is my favorite example because I’ve done this myself,” Angela said. “Traditionally, if you’re a salesperson and you’re looking at your forecast, you go to your SFA (sales force automation) application, you hit export to Excel, then you pop it open in Excel, and you do a bunch of manipulation of the data. Then you have to go back into your CRM application and update the opportunities.”
“With Dynamics 365, you just click your forecast in Excel, and it opens it right within the sales experience. You manipulate your spreadsheet, you save, and it updates those records for you.”
Microsoft offers business solutions as à la carte options, meaning customers can buy the entire package or individual modules to suit their purposes. Industry-specific third-party apps are also compatible with Dynamics 365 and are available through AppSource, such as AFS Retail Execution.
Dynamics for Retail™ Provides a Consistent Shopping Experience Across Channels
Modern consumers are more informed than ever before they enter a store. These customers are looking to engage with brands, and Microsoft provides retailers with everything they need to harness machine learning and data to better serve consumers.
“We’re looking at things like customer insights,” Angela said. “So how can you take all the data you know about your customer from your transactional system, from the market, from social media, and be able to use that to get a holistic picture of your customers?”
Karen told us Microsoft is relying upon Cortana Intelligence to help predict customer behavior. That data can help sales and marketing employees improve the customer experience with a personalized approach.
“Typically a customer might go into a fast food restaurant and buy a breakfast sandwich,” Karen said. “Obviously, if they’re doing that every day, we don’t want to promote that to them, but what can we do to bring them in in the afternoon to buy a milkshake?”
Visibility of Data Promotes Employee Productivity
The seamless integration of data across all of a company’s business applications can lead to increased productivity and a better return on a company’s investment.
In the context of retail, the visibility of data is about getting the right information to your employees at the ideal time so they can make informed decisions to drive sales. That could mean delivering a personalized marketing message or sales outreach to a customer when they’re most likely to be converted. It also means that sales associates are aware of promotions and are connected to the supply chain to remain in the loop on what items are in inventory.
A Consistent Customer Experience at Each Touchpoint
A crucial component in creating the customer experience is presenting a unified image of your company across every channel, including in-store, online, and social media, and being equipped to use data acquired at each of those touch points to better engage with that consumer.
“It’s really about visibility and consistency of data and the same business logic that runs across all of your channels,” Karen said. “It’s one of the problems that customers come to us with. ‘Help me give a consistent experience to my customer.’”
Unified Business Logic Prepares Companies for Growth
Microsoft Dynamics allows companies to manage point of sale, e-commerce, marketing, and social media outreach, producing meaningful reports and visualizations using data acquired at each customer touchpoint. It also includes personalized dashboards that break out relevant data for each employee.
This kind of efficiency in workflows, when store operations, supply chain and logistics, and sales automation are connected through your software, drives growth because companies get a 360-degree view of their operations and can anticipate trends through machine learning.
Microsoft Continues to Leverage Technology to Transform Business
With Microsoft as a powerful partner, Ashley Furniture utilizes software that blends CRM and ERP and harnesses machine learning to benefit each employee and consumer. Shoppers are getting that highly personalized customer experience they crave, while employees enjoy a spike in productivity as well as access to crucial data at every touchpoint.
Operating its business through Microsoft Dynamics 365 in the cloud has helped Ashley Furniture continue to grow. The software company’s ongoing commitment to investing in research and development was a key component in Ashley Furniture’s decision to choose Microsoft.
“I think what’s important for us at Microsoft is the innovation that we bring,” Karen said. “We spend in excess of $10 billion a year in research and development across all of our products.”
A company that invests that much in technology is primed for whatever comes next. And based on the transformation of retail in recent years, change is almost certain to continue at a rapid pace. Microsoft is committed to staying ahead of the market but also recognizes that different sized companies have different needs.
“Retailers are grappling with change,” Karen said. “I think we’ve seen more change in the last five years in retail than we saw probably in the last 15 years. It’s all fine to say, ‘We innovate, and we are ahead of industry trends.’ But it’s also about being able to support the retailer at a pace that suits them.”