Re-imagining Your Business in the Age of AI-Driven Chatbots

Mar 22, 2024

Text-based chatbots have long aspired to automate customer support and retention while driving  new sales, decreasing labor costs, and increasing both margin and engagement .  

Not very long ago, online chatbots were low-vocabulary, rule-based applications that relied on flowchart-style “decision trees” to understand customers’ texts and craft responses. Their limited conversational skills meant they were also notoriously prone to frustrating the users they were designed to help.

But with the advent of conversational language frameworks, like Chat GPT, chatbot development is at a serious inflection point. Chat GPT uses an approach called generative AI, and it’s built on top of large language models (LLMs) – massive machine-learning models that represent billions or trillions of relations among words learned from real-world conversations. That means chatbot vocabularies can be measured in tens or hundreds of thousand words, up from the few hundred words and phrases recognized by early chatbots. 

Customer interactions can now be truly conversational, and opportunities for driving business to the bottom line are orders of magnitude greater than ever before.

That’s just part of the reason 70% of organizations say they're actively exploring use cases for generative AI, according to a recent Gartner report

The Business Case is as Simple as Ever

A typical chatbot deployment consists of a minimal text box that pops up with a “can I help you?”-type prompt in the corner of a webpage. The business case, in the age of generative AI, is similar to what it was before: handle more chat customers simultaneously with the intent to  convert, upsell, or otherwise produce a satisfying, personalized experience that drives new business and customer retention, or at the very least, doesn’t drive business to your competitors.

That’s the basic justification, but the breakthrough of generative AI has also unleashed new business opportunities barely dreamed of before 2022.

Business Opportunities are Better than Ever

Chatbots have always been at least partly about controlling labor costs – handling more customers without the expense of employing and training human CSRs.

But unlike CSRs, a chatbot can potentially handle any number of simultaneous chats, and can be trained and up-skilled with new policies and procedures quickly, with 100% retention.  What’s more, when it leverages generative AI, it can handle tasks as diverse as personal shopping assistance, explaining return policies, or suggesting gifts based on customer purchase history. It’s truly conversational in a human sense. It understands context and retains awareness of customer input throughout a conversation, rarely getting confused by even complex requests.

With integration to your CRM and IT infrastructure, Chatbots can also personalize the way they treat customers, continually learn through their customer interactions, and populate additional insights in your customer databases.

Implementing Open-Source Chatbots

The key to implementing generative AI technology is leveraging the right combination of  tools, frameworks, and SDKs from the myriad components that spring up almost daily across the open-source software landscape.

What is Open-Source?

Software is considered open source when developers can actually see the code and modify it to fine-tune or extend its features and performance. It’s typically developed and maintained by a community of programmers, not controlled by a corporation. Since modern applications are composed of a “stack” of multiple software modules, a given application is typically a mix of some open, others closed. “Closed” implies developers can neither read the code nor modify it — they can send data to it and get data back, so it’s functional and useful, but it’s otherwise a “black box”.

Trade-offs Inherent to Open-Source

The diversity of generative AI development frameworks is expanding rapidly across the internet, as are pre-built interchangeable LLMs. Some are controlled and hosted by the big players, like IBM, Microsoft, Google, and Open AI (the creator of Chat GPT itself). But still others are open-source, frameworks that are community-developed, and rapidly enhanced through collaboration. Many of these are approaching capabilities and performance of their corporate cousins.

In software development, the general rule of thumb is that open-source frameworks require more technical expertise to use, but are more customizable and cheaper than their commercial or UI-based counterparts. 

With chatbots in particular, though, the distinction isn’t so cut and dried. Both commercial platforms and open-source frameworks offer the same underlying architecture that currently defines the state of the art in natural language communication – generative AI coupled with large-language models.

But chatbots are driven by both code and the LLM model data, either of which can be “open” or “closed”, or somewhere in between. And the development process requires both coding and model training. Any data that is proprietary to the use case must be trained into the model, along with data that changes frequently, like unit prices, promotions, and purchase options that must be current and available to the system in real time.

The Development Process

The customization and integration of open-source chatbots demand a certain level of technical expertise. Finding and retaining talent with the necessary skills in AI, machine learning, and natural language processing can be difficult, especially for smaller companies without in-house developers.

Any chatbot can provide a customer-friendly conversational interaction, but it can’t drive adoption, retention, or sales without leveraging proprietary information about your products and services. That’s why a big part of development is integrating that data with the language model through one of two approaches: fine-tuning an existing LLM, or embedding your data as a searchable corpus alongside the model. Details aside, the potential is that, for training purposes, frameworks can allow knowledge-building by ingesting text from your existing employee guides and training materials, and from sample chat sessions by employing "in-context" learning

To be clear, there are many more such granular decisions and trade-offs to be made among the deployment and configuration options within the open-source category. The right developer can help you make those choices and ensure they’re aligned with your business model and your goals. Companies like Ionic, for example, can support your team in making the right tradeoffs and optimizing business outcomes. 

Summary of Open-source Attributes

Despite all the granular variation, as a rule of thumb, it’s still possible to characterize the advantages and trade-offs of open-source chatbots.

Open-source Advantages

The benefits of open-source amount to increased control of both costs and functionality.

  • Cost-Effectiveness: Open-source APIs, SDKs, or frameworks are typically free to use, which can significantly reduce development costs.

  • Customization: Open-source allows for deep customization. Developers can modify the codebase to suit their specific needs, offering a level of flexibility that is hard to achieve with commercial products.

  • Transparency: The open-source nature ensures transparency, allowing developers to understand how the code works and ensuring there are no unintended behaviors.

  • Community Support: The open-source model thrives on community collaboration, which means businesses can benefit from the innovations and improvements made by developers worldwide. In active communities, users can benefit from the collective knowledge, contribute to the project, and receive help from peers that’s as valuable as the more mature documentation you’d get from commercial platforms.

  • Data Privacy and Security: The additional control you get with open-source typically also means you can control the way it’s hosted and the security of personal and sensitive data exchanges with customers.

Open-source Challenges

It’s true that the lower capital outlays of adopting open-source mean that you or your developer are responsible for greater expertise and effort of initial development and maintenance over the product life cycle — with all the benefits that entails.

  • Complexity: Despite the flexibility of open-source chatbots, integrating them into existing business systems can be complex. Companies often need skilled developers familiar with both the chatbot framework and the specific IT infrastructure of the business to ensure seamless integration.

  • Support and Maintenance: While the open-source community provides a level of support, it may not be as reliable or prompt as the dedicated support teams of commercial products. Regular updates, bug fixes, and security patches are necessary to keep the chatbot running smoothly, which might strain resources for smaller teams.

  • Scalability: As businesses grow, scaling an open-source chatbot to handle increased loads can be challenging. Ensuring the chatbot remains responsive and efficient as user interactions increase requires careful planning and potentially significant architectural changes.

The Bottom Line

In the era of generative AI and LLMs, open-source chatbots have reinvigorated opportunities for automating customer interactions and enhancing customer engagement strategies. 

The allure of open-source chatbots, in particular, lies in their flexibility, cost-effectiveness, and the collaborative innovation they foster. However, leveraging these systems comes with its unique set of challenges, particularly in technical deployment and maintenance. This post explores the multifaceted landscape of employing open-source chatbots in business, highlighting both the opportunities and the hurdles companies may face.

The benefits of cost savings, customization, and control over data are significant, which is one reason the chatbot market is expected to reach $42 billion by 2032. However, companies must also navigate the technical challenges of integration, maintenance, and scalability. With the right expertise and resources, businesses can harness the power of open-source chatbots to drive customer satisfaction and operational efficiency.

Building an AI chatbot for your business? Ionic can help you unlock new monetization opportunities.