Volume 6, Number 18 -- May 7, 2008

Hey ASA: Microsoft Delivers New Automated Service Agent

Published: May 7, 2008

by Alex Woodie

Interested in deflecting your customer support calls to a computerized assistant that lives in an online chat window 24/7, thereby reducing the number of customer interactions for your service representatives and boosting your call center's profitability? Then you might be in the market for a service like Microsoft's Automated Service Agent. This week, Microsoft announced it has made significant improvements with ASA that should provide companies even greater automation in handling customers and their problems.

As Microsoft notes, the Internet has made consumers a bit impatient when it comes to getting answers. After all, when you can just Google something (or even MSN it) and get 1,000,001 potential answers to sift through--in just milliseconds!--traditional call center hours of Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., just doesn't cut it anymore.

With ASA, Microsoft hopes to mirror the tremendous success that the Web has had in doling out answers, according to David Sliter, group general manager of the industry solutions group at Microsoft.

"As consumers are becoming accustomed to the immediate resources of the Internet, they expect the same level of satisfaction in their customer service interactions," Sliter says. "We developed the Automated Service Agent to empower customers to resolve their own issues and to alleviate the burden of assisted service calls."

ASA is an online service that uses Microsoft's natural language technology to try to match consumer's questions with answers contained in a computerized knowledge base. The solution is hosted by Microsoft data centers, and sold to companies as a service. Companies receive a line of HTML that they insert into their Web site; the result is an icon on the Web pages that initiate the ASA service on Microsoft's servers. Companies have the option of using straight HTML or a Flash version of ASA. They can also customize it with their own colors and logos.

ASA enables users and the ASA "robot," if you will, to engage in a dialog in pursuit of an answer. If the consumer becomes frustrated talking to a robot (as some technophobes inevitably will), the ASA is programmed to detect that, and escalate the issue to another form of computerized response (e-mail), or, as a last resort, to connect the frustrated consumer with an actual human.

Microsoft announced a new release of the ASA this week at the SSPA Best Practices 2008 conference in Santa Clara, California. Enhancements center on handling customer feedback and troubleshooting, new search capabilities, and integration with the SharePoint portal.

The new In-Agent Feedback mechanism tells users what the ASA success rate is, and enables them to fine-tune ASA's content on the fly, according to Microsoft. Quicker problem resolution should also result through the introduction of Decision Trees, which are designed to help companies create "trees" that can help guide customers to the right answers, Microsoft says.

The new ASA release also gives consumers the ability to conduct searches of a company's internal network and internal data through integration with SharePoint Query. A new screen position--on the side of the screen, next to the consumer's Web browser--should help consumers feel more at ease when interacting with the ASA agent.

It takes about six weeks to set up ASA, according to Microsoft. The software giant will provide a specialist to collect the information needed to configure ASA, build the ASA service, and train the company's staff on how to maintain and update the ASA knowledge base. After it's set up, almost no IT staff is needed to run ASA, Microsoft says.

Microsoft does not provide ASA pricing on its Web site. But the company does provide a a data sheet that puts the cost of ASA at $.60 per incident. That compares quite favorably with the $7 to $33 per incident cost of having a live human answer calls.

For more information on ASA, go to

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Editor: Alex Woodie
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik,
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