Microsoft multipurpose server and customer relationship management (CRM) software for companies with 500 or fewer employees will fly into US small and medium-sized enterprises on the wings of Cisco networking gear if a new partnership takes off as the companies hope.
The US-based partnership could help bring advanced call centre capabilities, combining data with voice calls, to smaller companies. It also is intended to lift the companies' channel partners, with system integrators and resellers taking advantage of architecture blueprints, system verification by the vendors and packaged offerings.
The partenrship details are set to be announced at Cisco's partner summit in Honolulu.
Small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) will be able more easily to set up a server and get on the Internet safely, according to Rex Bloesser, director of business development for the US mid-market at Microsoft.
They also would be able to get CRM functions integrated with converged voice and data communications, improving productivity and customer experience just as many large enterprises already had done, vice-president of Cisco's worldwide commercial market segment, Peter Alexander, said.
For example, when an existing customer called, call centre employees could see a screen of information on a PC about that customer, including the caller's buying history, he said.
Whereas most CRM software has been focused on large enterprises, Microsoft haf seen the need for sophisticated CRM in SMBs and delivered its Microsoft CRM software to meet those customers' needs, Bloesser said.
In addition, many of Microsoft's smaller business customers were also Cisco shops, and many channel partners offered both companies' products, he said.
The companies aim to provide incentives for channel partners they have in common to offer such systems; they also want each vendor's partners to join up in order to offer complementary products.
Many SMBs could benefit from these kinds of integrated systems but lacked the in-house expertise to implement them; that's where channel partners were needed and where they had their opportunity to add value, Cisco's Alexander said.
"It's an area that is looking for guidance from the major vendors, and certainly Cisco and Microsoft are two of the most visible vendors in the SMB market," Alexander said. "We reduce the risk and complexity of these implementations."
The companies' plan includes the following immediate steps:
- Develop reference architecture blueprints to provide channel partners with guidance for planning, building, operating and supporting sets of technologies for customers.
- Introduce a joint product offering that combines the Cisco 831 Broadband Router and Microsoft Small Business Server 2003 Standard Edition software, a unified server that includes file, application and other servers in one platform. Microsoft CRM 1.2, released in December, can run on Small Business Server.
- Work together to further integrate Microsoft CRM software with Cisco's Call Manager Express IP telephony platform. This work, which was continuing, was intended to give SMBs advanced call centre capabilities, Bloesser said.
The software reference architectures will be available to Cisco and Microsoft channel partners in the second quarter of this year, according to the companies.
The deal was likely to expand the SME opportunity for Cisco by giving it a firmer foothold in the small business end of the segment, CEO of AMI-Partners, Andy Bose, said.
AMI-Partners studies SME customers and channels for vendors including Cisco and Microsoft.
Cisco's current partnership with IBM was focused more on medium-size and larger companies, he said.
The convergence of existing technologies as well as the emergence of new ones might help bring about more deals like this one, Gartner analyst, Michael Haines, said. For one thing, traditional communications vendors want to tap in to channels, which they traditionally have not used and which are key to reaching small and medium-size customers.
"I'm surprised we haven't had more of these types of announcements," Haines said.
Representatives at Microsoft Australia were unsure whether the strategy would be repeated locally.