Microsoft’s Automated Agent: Can We Talk?

Microsoft is shipping an update to its Automated Service Agent (ASA) that adds new features meant to enhance its ability to provide unattended, chat-based customer care to Web users.

The ASA is a conversational service agent that is driven by natural language technology which Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) acquired in 2006 when it bought out tiny Colloquis.

Users can carry on conversational chat sessions with the ASA, thus cutting down on the number of individual sessions that live support personnel need to handle, a Microsoft official said.

“[ASA] is an enterprise chat client to help users get support without a human being involved,” Clinton Dickey, director of ASA, told

The aim is to lower support costs without sacrificing customer satisfaction.

“Automated Service Agent generates positive ROI [return on investment] by deflecting calls from call centers and help desks and decreasing the cost and increasing the efficacy of training and cross-selling applications,” said a statement on Microsoft’s ASA Web site.

In fact, whereas a live support professional chatting with a user online can cost $1.50 to $10 per session, Microsoft’s ASA can bring those costs down to about $0.50, Dickey said.

Among the new features Microsoft has added in the latest release is the ability for the agent to launch searches into the enterprise’s internal network via SharePoint. Additionally, enterprises can build their own decision trees to help troubleshoot users’ problems.

Also, a new side-by-side feature lets the user run the ASA client pane next to the main browser pane viewing ASA responses along side Internet content.

Microsoft hosts the software on its own datacenter servers “in the cloud,” although to the user it appears to be running on the customer’s site.

“In July, we’ll be offering it as a hosted system through our partners as well,” Dickey said.

Big name customers

Microsoft said its current customers include American Express, AT&T, BT, H&R Block, Qwest Communications, Time Warner, Vonage and both Microsoft’s Windows Vista and Xbox sites.

“It’s a pretty interesting technology that would be really valuable for any company that’s trying to use the Web for product support,” Rob Helm, director of research at researcher Directions on Microsoft, told

However, nothing is perfect, he cautioned.

“The Achilles heel [of ASA] is that it’s only as good as the knowledge that the customer puts into it,” Helm added.

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