Robotic chat advisor Atura takes advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) to offer powerful sales, onboarding, customer support, and transactional chatbot services, which improve customer experiences while reducing fees. Customers receive immediate assistance throughout the client lifecycle. Vetted by several banks as a secure platform, Atura takes advantage of Microsoft Azure AI infrastructure to build game-changing digital assistants.


Many customers, especially those in Africa, struggle with internet access and mobile data availability. These connectivity issues can make accessing information about credit facilities, insurance premiums, and investments difficult, since often the access must be handled through call centers or data-heavy websites. Reminders about payment deadlines can also be lost due to poor connectivity, resulting in missed payments. For many customers, missed payment deadlines can mean having to pay additional administrative fees, adding to their financial stress.

Atura is a robotic chat advisor for financial services customers. Owned by Cape Town software firm NML, Atura was founded in 2016. After preliminary research, Atura began to take shape, becoming more focused on investor assistance rather than investment advice as was initially conceived. Atura has since undergone a fruitful three-year product development phase with investment, insurance, and lending clients.

“We wanted to overcome connectivity issues and facilitate a higher degree of transparency in the finance sector, while reducing the operational costs of client support for businesses. Accessing information via the call center or browsing the banks’ data-rich websites can be a costly exercise for customers,” says Paul Cartmel, CEO at Atura.

Today, the company is able to fulfil the needs of customers by saving mobile data and providing immediate solutions for their queries. The digital assistant automatically engages with customers and responds to the most common requests. “We realized that if we can reduce the operating costs for the business, then potentially, asset management and insurance premium fees can come down, and the interest rates that these clients are charged in the lending space can also come down. And that’s a very exciting potential impact on social and economic development,” explains Cartmel.

AI powers customer engagement

The AI-based chatbot assists customers in gaining access to relevant information at any phase of their financial journey. However, Atura not only helps customers, it also brings value to call center consultants. The assistant can be used as an internal knowledge management tool, elevating the efficacy and level of service consultants are able to provide.

“Through the course of research and development, we realized that there was a certain 80/20 rule. But it was more like a 95/5 rule, where there were really only about 10 core requests that were coming through to the call center 95 percent of the time. People simply wanted to get a fact sheet or see fund pricing, fund performance, or the risk profile of the fund, for example. These were such easy questions to answer that it only made sense to automate them,” recalls Cartmel. The Atura chatbot has the potential to save clients 90 percent of call center costs.

The chatbot can interact with customers through various messaging apps that they use, and often have special data plans for. These applications are intrinsically data light, allowing Atura to directly address the need for a cost-effective customer support model that also works in areas with limited connectivity. As a result, in situations where human interaction is required, Atura provides a smooth transition to a live agent in the chat channel of the client’s choice.

The Atura digital assistant can also be designed to personify a client’s brand through the language and tone it assumes. Its platform, built on Microsoft Azure AI infrastructure, seamlessly integrates with existing systems and allows for advanced customization of workflows and interaction points, thus opening up all transactional customer interactions to the client.

Atura and Language Understanding (LUIS) accurately collate, then translate chat data into a usable form for Atura’s linguistics specialists and NLP programmers. This data is used to inform future adjustments, ensuring the NLP engine and the chatbot improve over time.

Advanced chatbot needs trusted platform

The Atura security model has been vetted by several banks and financial firms and confirmed as highly secure. The chatbot service has end-to-end data encryption and is secured through all layers of the architecture including the database, where conversation logs and metadata are stored. It also uses the same verification protocols used by call center agents to discern customer identity.

“Our experience working with Microsoft has advanced our technical capabilities for digital assistant development and deep integration into financial services systems. Our team has been given expertise in conversational user experience best practices, a well-tested toolkit for rapidly prototyping conversational flows, and a deep understanding of natural language processing―all in all a thorough understanding of what makes chatbots succeed in the real world, and what doesn’t,” says Cartmel.

In choosing the foundational technology for Atura, Microsoft stood out from its competitors. Its pricing models, broad offering, flexibility, and geographic infrastructure made it even more attractive. “Microsoft’s Cognitive Services include a powerful Natural Language Processing engine as well as facial and voice recognition which we leverage for voice-based logins. These are all very robust technologies and will give us longevity down the line,” he adds.

Atura also benefited from Microsoft Bot Framework compatibility with 16 different chat channels. “After doing our research, we found a number of core components that are critical for a good digital assistant solution: a powerful Natural Language Processing (NLP) engine, robust cognitive services and context engine, and a framework that takes care of the chat channel plumbing. The Azure bot framework offered us all of these pieces of infrastructure. These services were crucial for us, because we believe in engaging with the client in the channel of their choice and thus wanted to target as many different chat channels as possible,” explains Cartmel. Azure allows the user to control language flows while providing flexibility for testing and debugging. “Our developers enjoy the user interface; building and testing is easy inside Azure,” he explains.

People-centric technology innovates in Africa

Atura can help businesses save money and, more importantly, empower people to manage their finances more intelligently. “There’s this initiative to lend in Africa so that people can be entrepreneurs. There’s a bright side and a dark side to that. The bright side we all understand very well. But the dark side is that if you are not mindful about enabling the consumer to access the right information, they can get trapped in a debt cycle. And that can cripple their future. So just trying to facilitate that transparency, for us, is really the key. By having access to information, maybe users will be able to renegotiate a new payment plan or just better understand what they owe. That’s what keeps me moving forward with this project. And Microsoft supports us in this mission,” concludes Cartmel.


About AI Expo Africa 2019

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