AI for people

South Africa’s CLEVVA is making AI-powered virtual advisors a thing


Artificial intelligence is impressing us more everyday, as the technology demonstrates amazing learning capabilities and flexibility. It’s not just the likes of Google, Apple and Microsoft working on AI though, as South African firm CLEVVA has a rather innovative application for the technology.

The company, founded in 2011, has crafted virtual advisors, powered by AI and used in sales fields (among others) to train and guide sales representatives.

Just how does this service work? Could the average SME easily get to grips with it? What will future of AI look like? Will it take our jobs? We interviewed CLEVVA CEO Ryan Falkenberg…

A ‘GPS’ for decisions

“A VA [virtual advisor] acts like an online expert, asking the required questions to understand the situation, and then recommending the right solution, be it a product or an action. Where an action is required, the VA can also guide the user through the steps, in line with company policies and procedures,” Falkenberg explained.

“It’s a bit like having a GPS that ensures you make the right decisions and take the right actions, without you requiring detailed knowledge or experience. And because every action and decision is recorded for compliance and reporting purposes, there is little risk to the company and the individual.”

CLEVVA is being used across many fields where staff are required to apply a known decision-making formula in a consistent way

The CEO said there are “various wizards and VA templates” for companies to use, allowing them to quickly capture sales, administrative and service expertise.

What fields were well-suited to the technology though? Falkenberg said it was ideal for helping sales staff analyse a customer’s needs (then identifying relevant products), guiding service agents through diagnostics, helping technical staff identify the root cause of problems and helping operational staff through procedure-driven matters.

“CLEVVA VAs are not effective in areas where the required logic is not known, and the business is looking for the AI technology to use machine learning to work it out for them,” Falkenberg noted.

So how many fields are using the platform?

“CLEVVA is being used across many fields where staff are required to apply a known decision-making formula in a consistent way. This includes the financial and insurance sector; call centres; government departments; technical sales and service; and any areas where compliance to policies and procedures is important.”

CLEVVA comparisons to chat bots

Of course, AI efforts have stepped up in recent months, as Google, Facebook and Microsoft experiment with chat bots. But Falkenberg explained how their offering differs from this type of technology.

“Chat bots use natural language processing to work out what you are asking for, and then try execute your request. They require you to know exactly what you want, and even then often struggle to give you the right answer, and end up frustrating you with generic responses. Some use machine learning to learn and improve, although as Microsoft found out, this can be problematic,” the CEO continued, alluding to Microsoft’s Tay chat-bot.

As the internet of things becomes more a reality, with every device connecting and sharing data, there will be more big data available for AI to leverage

“CLEVVA VAs are different. They are not assistants simply responding to your requests. They act like advisors that first analyse your request and help clarify your real issue before offering relevant solutions and actions. VA logic is structured, so you will be asked specific questions that will always lead to relevant answers and actions. This ensures consistent, compliant advice is always offered in line with defined rules.”

Current consumer-focused AI offerings also boast of the ability to learn from the user – something that CLEVVA is working on for next year.

“We are looking to apply machine learning to help optimise known logic, and to offer authors more insights into user patterns. This capability is expected to unlock during 2017. For now we want to first excel at helping companies capture and scale their required and known logic before looking to help them with their unknown logic,” the CEO explained.

The future of AI?

Are concerns about AI costing jobs legitimate though?

“Yes. Many jobs where staff add little value other than replicating known decisions and actions will be replaced by robotics. However, AI can also help people add more value,” Falkenberg elaborates.

CLEVVA is AI for people, allowing them not to have to worry about getting known, albeit complex decisions and actions wrong, and rather focusing their efforts on adding value beyond that. For example, focusing more on the customer experience. So for us, our AI is all about making people more powerful, not more vulnerable.”

Falkenberg envisions AI becoming smarter in the future, as more devices become connected.

“As the internet of things becomes more a reality, with every device connecting and sharing data, there will be more big data available for AI to leverage. This means more will be known about you, so AI can shape your experience more effectively. Machine learning will become more effective, and will allow solutions to self correct and improve,” he elaborates.

Falkenberg says that consumer-focused online services will “feel more intuitive and responsive” to your preferences as a result of AI and machine learning.

“That said, from a business perspective, it will result in more administrative roles being made redundant as computers improve their ability to perform these functions unaided. Staff will then move more into value-adding roles where creativity, innovation and EQ differentiate.”


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