Can I Just Do This Myself? When to DIY With Dynamics 365 CRM (CE)

Know when it’s ok to DIY, and when to engage with a professional for a Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM configuration

It can be tempting, right? Whether you are your company’s Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM solutions (otherwise known as CE) system administrator, a power user, or just a recent viewer of five YouTube videos with an unearned confidence and a predilection for risk, the idea that you can make configuration changes to your CRM that solve an immediate problem is empowering. Intoxicating even! And the speed at which changes or improvements can be made to make this or that user in your organization happy often feels like you’re getting a quick ‘win’. In this article, we will help you decide when it’s ok to make DIY configuration changes, and when it’s likely better to engage your Dynamics Partner.

Yes, it’s true that in recent years CRM systems (and enterprise systems as a whole) have become MUCH more configuration-friendly; putting customers in the driver’s seat more often. Microsoft Dynamics 365 CE is no exception. Ironically though, professionals like myself and partner organizations like Encore Business Solutions that maintain and implement them are arguably even more useful than they ever have been.

Why? One of the most common reasons we find is that people underestimate the scale of the impact of the changes they’re making; taking a myopic view (ie: “This change will help me get XXX done faster or in fewer steps!”). They forget that perhaps dozens of other users have different needs and have different use cases than you, resulting in a patchwork approach to system configuration that over time is difficult to maintain, and difficult for new users to understand. At worst, you may be making your CRM non-forward-compatible, requiring a costly re-implementation.

Having said that, there are situations where doing configurations to Dynamics 365 CE yourself is totally appropriate, and can be performed in a ‘safe’ way. Read on…

What to Expect When You’re Expecting (…to Configure Dynamics 365 CE Yourself)

Understanding what types of changes are low-risk and which are best left to your Microsoft Partner is a key first step. Here are five things to consider before publishing your first change:

1. Honestly Assess Risk Versus Reward

Typically, the main motivation we see behind DIY configuration is either to save money (consulting services range from $175 – $250/hr), or to shorten the time it takes to engage, communicate and coordinate with them. You just want to make a few quick changes and not bother anybody! Both are totally valid concerns that deserve need to be contextualized against the risk.

For instance, what if your small change prevents everybody in your organization from creating a sales order, or updating an opportunity, or issuing a work order because they now get a nondescript error that can’t be read by human beings? What is the true business cost of being down for an hour, a day, or a week? And do you have the technical prowess to troubleshoot or rollback the change that first caused it? You can see how quickly $175 becomes a much more costly (and relationship damaging) problem!

2. Understand the Full Picture First

Take the time to understand not only who may be impacted by this change, but what processes your might be undermining, and what dependencies there are that aren’t obvious. In the case of field-level changes, typical things to watch for might be reports, dashboards, workflows and views that depend on data that is made no longer useful or unreliable by the new field you’re adding.

If you do not know the full picture, either ask questions of other users or your Partner, or refer to documentation such as entity sheets, use case diagrams or ERD’s (entity relationship diagrams) that were likely created during the initial implementation. If this kind of information is not available, take that as a warning sign.

Fortunately, Dynamics 365 CE usually (but not always) makes it difficult to delete items that have system dependencies, so you’re more likely to create redundant functionality than break anything existing, but proceed with caution anyway.

3. The Benefit of Having “One Throat to Choke”

There can be a lot of anxiety and finger-pointing when something stops working, users experience errors, and people can no longer get their work done. A good Dynamics Partner has a dedicated support team that is available outside of business hours to identify and solve issues quickly. For them to do their job, having a complete view of recent changes, product updates and user activity is essential. If there are modifications being made outside of their view, it can be next to impossible to troubleshoot, resulting in longer downtime.

If you as a user make changes to the system – however well-executed they might have been – it diffuses that responsibility and even makes you partly accountable. Unless you are comfortable with being in the hot seat while your colleagues are stewing and complaining, we’d recommend avoiding that position. Either communicate the changes clearly in advance with the Partner (thus allowing them to identify any risk factors), or leave it to them entirely.

4. Follow Production Release Principles!

One of the first lessons many people learn is the risk of making hotfixes. Hotfixes refer to changes made on the production (live) version of your system, without first testing them in a test environment. Not only does developing on a test – or “sandbox” – site allow you to make changes without disturbing other users and possibly corrupting live data, it also gives you the substantial benefit of being able to undo your changes should things go south.

In the Dynamics 365 CE world, this process involves creating a Solution file that contains all your changes, and then installing that solution file on your live site when you’re absolutely confident it’s ready. By publishing it as a “managed solution”, you have the later ability to remove those changes if necessary. Yes, it’s a two step process, but it gives you an additional safeguard that can save a LOT of time and aggravation over the high-risk hotfix approach!

Dynamics 365 CE Configurations That are DIY-Friendly

After reading all this, do you still want to make changes yourself? Bravo to you for your courage and your spirit of adventure! The good news is, there are definitely options that shouldn’t get you into too much trouble, and only require a moderate amount of technical expertise to perform.

Here is a list of the most common configurations that we see our users do with success:

  1. Field-level changes: Creating, re-labelling, or changing the mandatory enforcement of fields.
  2. Form-level changes: Re-organizing the main forms or creating new forms for a specific use.
  3. Business Rules: Creating dependencies between fields, validating the data that gets input, setting default values. These are a great way to maintain integrity and to make the user experience easier.
  4. Creating and editing views.
  5. Creating simple workflows. The operative word here is “simple”, such as triggering an email notification, or setting the status of a record when something noteworthy happens. Generally try to stay away from multi-stage workflows, as a deeper knowledge of relationships between records is usually needed.
  6. SiteMap changes. The SiteMap defines the navigation options available on the left side of your screen (in Dynamics 365 CE), or the top ribbon (in older versions of Dynamics CRM). Think of these as shortcuts to common areas of the system, like Accounts or Quotes. Adding to it or changing the nomenclature is fine. Removing items is riskier, as the SiteMap may be the only way users can access that particular area.
  7. Dashboards and Charts. Have at it. This is one of the few areas of Dynamics 365 CE that customizing it to your needs is not only safe – it’s strongly recommended!

Beyond the items above that we would consider user-friendly to changes, there are plenty of configuration possibilities that live in the gray area between safe and hazardous, and are dependent upon your level of technical literacy, personal confidence, and your assessment of the overall risk.

Configurations you Should Leave to a Dynamics Partner

As the counterpoint to the previous list, here are a some of the most… treacherous… configurations that are best left to your Dynamics Partner, due to their complexity and the high level of possibility they will cause you and your user base grief:

  1. Changes to entities that are integrated with your ERP or other system. Integrations are famously delicate. Best to stay away from configurations to the usual suspects like Orders, Products, Invoices, Quotes and to some degree, Accounts.
  2. Multi-stage Workflows or Flows. Since they typically rely on multiple records that all need to be in specific states to function, avoid modifying them, lest you end up doing hours of troubleshooting to identify what only took you two minutes to break.
  3. Re-purposing existing entities. The entity that you think you will never ever need, almost always is. So trust me, just don’t do it.
  4. Broad-based changes to Security roles. A cautious, well-tested tweak here and there is fine. Just don’t get too ambitious.
  5. Plug-in development. Chances are, if you’re a regular user or system administrator, you wouldn’t consider writing your own code anyway.

Where a Dynamics Partner Shines

Designing and configuring an enterprise-level CRM system like Dynamics 365 CE is about more than knowing HOW to do it. In the same way designing and building a house requires skills in architecture, not just carpentry, a good Dynamics partner has an invaluable understanding of the wider picture. They also can suggest creative approaches to problems that you may not even consider.

Here are just a few ways you can benefit from an experienced Dynamics Partner doing your CE configurations:

  1. Product Knowledge: They know Dynamics intimately, including areas you haven’t explored yet, and often the customizations you wish to make may already exist!
  2. UI Design Principles: They are experts at creating user experiences that are intuitive and fool-proof, meaning training is reduced and user adoption remains high.
  3. Licensing Restrictions: They know what the limits of your licensing model is. Creating a shiny new feature that you find out later isn’t available to your employees’ license type is… well… embarrassing.
  4. Knowing your Options: There are often several methods to come at the same problem in Dynamics 365 CE, and only an experienced professional will know which to use when, and why. Partners also know the ISV (Independent Software Vendor) marketplace well, and can recommend when an industry-specific solution would fit your needs out-of-the-box, rather than building it yourself.
  5. Product Roadmap: Dynamics 365 CE is always growing and changing, and that includes the occasional removal of core functionality to introduce new features. A partner is regularly updated by Microsoft on their product roadmap, ensuring clients are transitioned away from “deprecated” features. It’s also handy to know that the custom development you were going to spend several months building out was going to be introduced for free as part of the core platform a week later!

That’s it! Hopefully this gives you a bit of a navigational aid to understanding what Dynamics 365 CE configuration tasks are reasonable to expect to do yourself, and which are best left to those that do it every day and have the certifications and training to back it up. Best of luck and please contact us if you have questions about making changes to your Dynamics 365 CE solution.

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