Microsoft Goes Automated with its Service Agent

Customer service's role as a competitive differentiator continues to grow, but customer service is not one-size-fits-all. Tackling the challenge of finding the right mix of channels for customers to get answers and solve problems, Microsoft has announced today its new entrant in the self-help/e-service channel: Automated Service Agent (ASA) solution.

Built on the core technology from Colloquis, a provider of conversational online business solutions that feature natural-language-processing technology acquired by Microsoft in 2006, ASA is an online support solution that enables organizations to add another facet to the customer service experience by providing customers a precise answer that can be acted upon immediately. Instead of simply offering a Frequently Asked Questions page on a Web site, ASA uses Microsoft's natural-language technology to communicate conversationally with customers and deliver accurate replies.

According to Clinton Dickey, director of program management at Microsoft, and documentation provided by the company, key features of ASA include:

  • In-Agent Feedback: Enterprises will be able to dynamically capture the ASA's success rate and fine-tune content.
  • Decision Trees: Enterprises will be able to quickly create troubleshooting trees that can help guide customers to the right answers.
  • ASA in SharePoint Query: Users will be able to access internal networks of information through a SharePoint search.
  • Side-by-Side Results: With the ASA window alongside the primary Web browser, users can view ASA responses and Internet content simultaneously.

Dickey explains that ASA's intent is to keep as many contacts as possible from clogging up agents' valuable time. "Our goal is to offset calls and emails to live humans," he says. "While we can't deflect everything, the goal is to deflect 75 [percent] to 85 percent of all queries." Dickey stresses, though, that ASA is not a one-trick pony. The solution can be used for online self-service, training, information, and cross-selling.

According to Zachary McGeary, an associate analyst at Jupiter Research, this customer service channel is one of the only areas where consumers have been increasingly more satisfied. "When we ask consumers about chat, it's one of the only touch points we've seen any kind of growth in satisfaction over [approximately] the last seven years," he adds.

Besides happier consumers and agents spared a deluge of calls, Dickey also points to the cost savings of utilizing ASA. He explains that assisted service calls can cost between $7 and $33 per incident; by giving customers the option to use ASA self-service, the cost can plummet to 60 cents per incident. McGeary echoes the upside of cost-efficiency: "On an interaction basis, we've found that [an automated solution] can decrease the cost of providing service by approximately 81 percent," he explains.

McGeary agrees, but stresses that ASA will only be as good as the information it contains: Companies, he says, will have to make a point to constantly update the information their consumers access, ensuring its accuracy. Up until now, he says, many companies have not succeeded in this aspect. "There is a requirement for allocating the appropriate resources and making sure that knowledge is up-to-date and that there are few gaps," he says. "We've found that a lot of companies aren't really adhering to best practices in that area, so there's a tremendous opportunity for new market entrants to work with their clients to make sure...they're honing the tool and solution they're providing to customers."

Dickey stressed that while ASA is definitely part of Microsoft's long-term plan, right now the company is focused on going to market with this solution alone, before tending to anything else. Wardley suggests that Microsoft is moving in the direction of offering a single, large-scale solution for contact centers to not only provide basic customer service, but an overall customer experience in which sales, marketing, information, and problem-solving can all occur within the contact center and within a single application.

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