Cisco, Microsoft merge IP telephony with CRM

Cisco Systems Inc. is set to offer starting Monday a tool to help small and medium-sized businesses use Microsoft Corp. CRM (customer relationship management) software in combination with a Cisco IP (Internet Protocol) communication system.

The Cisco CRM Communications Connector software, developed with Microsoft's help, is designed to bring together the Microsoft Business Solutions CRM application and Cisco's IP Communications converged network technology.

The software automates some functions to make it easier for businesses with 20 to 999 employees to use CRM software, said Peter Alexander, vice president of Cisco's Worldwide Commercial Market Segment. For example, as soon as a sales or service representative takes a call from a customer, that customer's profile can pop up on the screen with account history and other information.

Few small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) use CRM, partly because the software from major CRM vendors is too expensive and complex for them, according to Yankee Group analyst Helen Chan. Those that have gone all the way to integrating CRM with an IP telephony system have had to rely on a system integrator that created its own software: a lengthy and expensive process, she added. That also limits the customer's freedom down the road, Chan said.

"To get this to work before, it required someone to sit down and write a custom application, and all that technology is proprietary," Chan said. As a result, for updates or additions to the system, "you're always going back to that same partner," she said.

Other features of the CRM Communications Connector include tracking call duration, dialing a contact's phone number by clicking on an entry in Microsoft CRM, capturing information such as phone numbers on each incoming and outgoing call, as well as creating a new customer record in the CRM software when a new customer calls, according to Cisco and Microsoft.

Such features could help SMBs become more competitive and are likely to become increasingly important, Yankee's Chan said. Customers, especially users of professional services, expect quick responses from companies in the age of the Internet, she said.

Some components of the CRM Communications Connector run on a server and some on desktops, according to Cisco's Alexander.

The product is available immediately, free of charge, to qualified Cisco channel partners worldwide.

The availability of the new software also should aid Cisco and Microsoft channel partners, Chan said. "It helps partners go to market faster and helps them work through each customer's situation faster," Chan said. "The only thing the channel partner really has to deal with ... is how to sell it." Today, that still involves an in-person educational process in most cases, she said.

Cisco is also expected to kick off on Monday another partner benefit, the CRM Express Solution Specialization. This program will allow its SMB channel partners to train and be certified for a specialization in integrating Microsoft CRM with Cisco IP Communications systems. Any partners that are not also Microsoft resellers can then be matched up by Cisco with a Microsoft partner to supply the CRM software, Cisco said.

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