Microsoft Goes Automated With its Service Agent

Analytics: 2

Customer Svc/Call Ctr: 3

Enterprise CRM: 2

Industry News: 3

Integration: 2
Companies mentioned:

Microsoft: 3

eGain: 1

InQuira: 1

Kana: 1

It's no secret customer service is now one of the top, if not the penultimate, competitive differentiators. The challenge for companies is finding the right mix of channels for customers to be able to get answers to inquiries or solve problems, because customer service is not one size fits all. Microsoft looks to make waves in the self-help/e-service channel with its new Automated Service Agent (ASA) solution.

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

The key benefits of ASA, according to Dickey, director of program management at Microsoft, include:

  • call deflection;
  • enterprise support, featuring an interface in which internal employees throughout the company can find answers as quickly as possible; and
  • training, by having uniform information available for all agents both experienced and new, Microsoft believes this will decrease the time it takes to get staff "up to speed."
According to Mary Wardley, vice president of enterprise applications and CRM software at IDC, it's important that ASA goes further in delivering a quality customer experience. "The self-help, e-service market got its legs under it in the early days of the dot-com explosion," she recalls. "So here we are, it's 2008, and Microsoft is kind of entering the game [in this market]."

Dickey explains ASA's intention for organizations is to offset as many calls or emails as possible to agents. "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, at 51 percent. "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 not flooded with 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, and by giving customers the option to use ASA self-service, the cost can plummet to 60 cents per incident. McGeary also points out cost efficiency as another driver for companies using these solutions. "On an interaction basis, we've found that [an automated solution] can decrease the cost of providing service by approximately 81 percent," he explains.

Wardley explains that the contact center market is in a "very pivotal point of change" at this time, due to a lot of technology investments occurring at the turn of the 21st century -- so the time is ripe for companies to look for solutions like ASA that can enhance the customer experience, while at the same time keep costs down. McGeary agrees, but stresses that ASA will only be as good as the companies willing 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 ensure they're honing the tool and solution they're providing to customers."

Speaking about Microsoft ASA's place in the market among competitors such as eGain, InQuira, and Kana, Wardley says ASA will definitely contend. "ASA is a competitive product for now, and it'll be a good addition to MS CRM Dynamics solution set -- and that's kind of Stage One," she says. Wardley explains further that you cannot judge ASA solely on the product itself, but rather how it fits into Microsoft's overall contact center offerings. "[ASA] is another piece of the puzzle -- Microsoft has the enterprise applications, the Dynamics line of various back office applications, CRM, SharePoint, portal products, CRM online -- there are a lot of pieces that are coming together," she says. "In the short term, ASA is a nice product. It's polished [and] looks very nice, but I think really you need to judge it on what it means in the broader Microsoft portfolio."

When posed with the question of where ASA would fit with Microsoft's other contact center offerings, Dickey stressed that while it is definitely part of a long-term plan, right now the company is focused on going to market with ASA before tending to anything else. Wardley explains Microsoft is moving toward the direction of a large-scale offering 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. Wardley wouldn't give a timeframe on when we could expect a large-scale offering for the contact center from Microsoft, but didn't attribute this to poor planning. In her view, it's not entirely up to Microsoft. "When you ask for a time frame, it's not a timeframe that is [solely] Microsoft specific," she says. "It's two parts. Microsoft-specific on the one hand, but more market specific on the other -- this is a five to 10 year evolution."

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