Small and midsize businesses often lack the IT skills and budget to build sophisticated call center setups that link customer information stored in CRM applications with IP telephony systems. Cisco, working in partnership with Microsoft, aims to change that.Small and midsize businesses often lack the IT skills and budget to build sophisticated call center setups that link customer information stored in\u00a0CRM\u00a0applications with IP telephony systems.\u00a0Cisco, working in partnership with\u00a0Microsoft, aims to change that.The network vendor last week announced software designed to more easily integrate its IP-based communications products with Microsoft's CRM software. Cisco's CRM Communications Connector is not something corporate customers will purchase. Rather, it's available at no cost to channel partners that sell CallManager Express, Cisco's IP telephony platform for SMBs.The purpose of the new software is to simplify the effort it takes to make the vendors' products work together, says Peter Alexander, vice president of Cisco's commercial market segment. The vendors' coordinated development efforts should make it easier for resellers to set up these systems and therefore less expensive for businesses without the in-house expertise to implement the integrated systems, he says.Few SMBs use CRM, partly because the software from major CRM vendors is too expensive and complex for them, according to Helen Chan, an analyst at The Yankee Group.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 says."To get this to work before, it required someone to sit down and write a custom application, and all that technology is proprietary," Chan says. As a result, for updates or additions to the system, "you're always going back to that same partner."Used together, Cisco's VoIP gear and Microsoft's CRM software allow for features such as screen pops, wherein customer information stored in the CRM application automatically pops up on the user's screen as the call comes in.A click-to-dial feature lets users launch calls from Microsoft CRM contact records. The integrated systems also enable call tracking, for monitoring call duration; and information capture, for keeping track of incoming and outgoing call numbers.The Communications Connector runs on a server along with Microsoft's CRM software and requires client software to be installed on each desktop. It communicates with Cisco's router-based CallManager Express software.No additional hardware is required, and employees answering IP phone calls can be located anywhere network access is available, Alexander notes. "Because it's over an IP network, a user could be at home as a telecommuter doing this or in a hotel room over a VPN doing this. You can be anywhere on network and have CRM capabilities with IP telephony," Alexander says.The availability of Cisco's CRM Communications Connector software follows plans announced in February by longtime partners Microsoft and Cisco to jointly go after SMBs. But the Cisco-Microsoft partnership is not an exclusive arrangement - Microsoft also is a CRM partner of Cisco competitor Avaya. Siemens, NEC and Altigen, too, offer integration between their telephony products and Microsoft's CRM software, says Brian Riggs, a principal analyst at Current Analysis.Microsoft is emerging as a key player in the CRM applications market. So far its software is aimed at SMBs, but industry watchers expect the software giant to target larger enterprise customers over time.Cisco needed a CRM partner to keep up with its competition, Riggs says. "CRM was definitely a gap in Cisco's telephony strategy," he says.IDG News Service correspondent Stephen Lawson contributed to this story.