In August this year, Absa Bank launched a new innovation that enables its customers to access their bank accounts and transact via WhatsApp. We spoke to Andrew Mwithiga, the Head of Digital mobile channels at Absa Bank Kenya in a bid to better understand their new product and its benefits to their customers.

Tell us about yourself

My name is Andrew Mwithiga, I am the Head of Digital mobile channels at Absa Bank Kenya. I work with the Bank’s alternate channels specifically our Internet banking, mobile banking, our chat bot and Timiza. Timiza  is a mobile lending and saving proposition that we offer to M-Pesa customers. I have been in Absa for the last 4 years, previously, I have worked with NCBA and Stanbic Bank.

Tell us about “Abby” the new WhatsApp banking feature

Abby is basically an Artificial Intelligence driven conversational bot that enables the customer to have a conversation with us as a bank on the different products and services that we offer. It also enables customers to carry out transactions like account to M-Pesa/Airtel Money transfers, inter account transfers, bill payments among others.

We essentially created the chat bot to enable our customers to be able to interact with the bank as through they were speaking to a customer service agent seated at the branch.

How can a customer register on the WhatsApp banking feature?

To register on the service, a customer needs to save the number 0710 130 000 in their contacts. Thereafter, they are supposed to open Whatsapp and start chatting the bot so as to be able to execute commands and get more information.

The chatbot does natural language processing which makes it as conversational as possible and it feels like you are chatting with an actual person.  Customers can also use the WhatsApp banking feature on our website.

What language does the WhatsApp Banking chat bot use?

The chat bot was designed primarily to use English, however, she can also be able to pick colloquial terms whether in English or slang. We train the bot on daily basis through a process called annotation to be able to understand words commonly used by our customers. However, if you use deep slang, she will not be able to understand you.

We chose the language after some insights from customers which indicated that in as much as we are a multi lingual country, when it comes to financial services a majority of the people prefer to use English.

Is the WhatsApp banking feature only meant for personal banking or can businesses use it too ?

If a client wans to get information about our products and services, they can use the platform whether they have personal accounts or business accounts.

However, when it comes to transactions, we only allow customers who have personal bank accounts and are registered on our online banking platform to transact. This is because business accounts have more complex mandates that are setup up which means that they are not able to transact on the platform as it is currently setup. But we have in the process of building a feature that will allow even those with business accounts  to transact on the platform.

What led to the development of the WhatsApp Banking feature?

From an Absa point of view, we are really customer obsessed, which means providing the most convenient, accessible and differentiated experiences for  our customers. This can be seen in that the bank invested Ksh. 1.6 Billion in digital projects only.

By introducing Abby, we were looking at how to embrace the next age of banking in terms of transactability,  conversational and personalized interactions and transactions with customers in a fast and reliable way. This was accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic where there was less interaction with clients but they still wanted to know about our products and services. This led us to develop the chat bot which was able to meet this demand for information by the customer.

The second reason was that we wanted to provide a personalized experience all our customers at scale because not everyone would want to walk into a branch to either make enquiries or transact. As it is, technology is the only way one can scale this kind of interaction and in this case, WhatsApp is where we have got the most personalized interaction.

We even called the chatbot “Abby” for that particular reason as we wanted to make the service as personalized (human) as possible. This is why when you interact with Abby, it feels like you are chatting with a human being so as to make it as natural as possible.

How is the uptake of the WhatsApp banking feature so far?

It is still in the early days but i am happy to report that about a quarter of our clients who have internet banking are utilizing the WhatsApp banking feature. This is quite encouraging due to the fact that we launched mid August.

In terms of sessions we are doing very well in the hundred of thousands. Sessions  is basically any interaction with Abby that she is able to respond to. This shows that customers were waiting for this kind of innovation to be able enquire about the different propositions that we offer as a bank.

What services can one access on the WhatsApp banking feature?

From a conversational point of view, one can enquire about any product that we offer just by asking a question. When it comes to transactions, the services one can be able to access on the chat bot includes; account to M-Pesa/Airtel Money, inter account transfers, RTGS, transaction history, show balance, branch and ATM locator,  bill and utility payments .

We have also incorporated a customer feedback feature which enables us to get honest feedback from our clients on the service which helps us to improve it.

With the reality of online security breaches, how secure is Abby?

The WhatsApp banking feature is very secure due to the fact that we have applied a multi-layered approach to our security. This means that all traffic between our clients handsets, WhatsApp  and our backend is fully encrypted.

Another security layer is around customer registration process, what i would call logical controls.  When you register as a customer, we make sure that you are registered for internet banking. As such, a random person cannot start transacting on WhatsApp without being prompted to login to the internet banking platform for authentication. When making a funds transfer, the system pulls you out of WhatsApp which means that you are not keying in any of your credentials on WhatsApp but rather on a secure browser session which enables us to authenticate that session. Once we authenticate that the person utilizing the service is authorized, the system redirects you back to WhatsApp where you can continue with the transaction.

We have also put in a time out feature, this means that when you idle for about three minutes or so without doing anything we actually log you out of the session. This ensures that anyone who has access to your handset cannot be able to login and start transacting.

The other security element that we have is that for one to be able to send RTGS they should have logged into the internet banking platform and created the beneficiary. This ensures that someone cannot just access your handset and start sending money to people without authorization.

As a bank, we have also invested heavily in cyber security  and we apply the best standards when it comes to keeping the security and privacy of our customers safe.

What are the benefits of using the WhatsApp banking feature for the customer?

The feature is a 24/7 banking system which means that  our customers can talk and interact with Abby at any given time. For example, say one needs information on an education plan at 10 pm, one can’t call the bank but they can be able to get this information on Abby at the comfort of their homes. This flexibility gives our customers liberty to get real time answers on their pressing questions and needs.

We use WhatsApp as our preferred channel, which is a common mode of communication for majority of Kenyans. Actually about 95% of internet users in Kenya are on WhatsApp which explains our preference for the channel.

Abby is an AI powered bot which means that there is a level at which it becomes intuitive as you engage with it. We are also working on models whereby it will start predicting customer needs after which it can be able to make product recommendations.

Another benefit is that it gives our customers an additional channel that can use to transact over and above the existing ones.

There is also the aspect of  convenience in the sense that one can be able to transact on the platform from anywhere in the world.

What other innovations can we look forward to?

The bank has invested well over Ksh. 1.6 Billion in about 60 projects and all these are geared  towards the bank being smarter, more interactive and offering personalized services to our customers. We are quite optimistic about these projects, actually, in August, we migrated the Timiza platform into a much more advanced digital wallet that will allow us to integrate into a number of eco-systems. This will allow us to offer much more value to our clients, currently, Timiza customer can be able to make Buy Goods and Paybill transactions from the app something that they could not be able to do prior.

When it comes to new innovations, i don’t want to let the cat out of the bag but please be on the lookout in the coming months as we will be launching new products.