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Using AI chatbots to enhance consumer conversations: Insights from OpenDialog Founder Terry Walby

Using tech to enhance and personalise customer experiences might seem like a bit of an oxymoron. For many of us, the thought that a robot, a computer-generated intelligence system, might be able to have a genuine and effective conversation that will help us solve our problems and address our concerns, seems a little out-of-the-blue. 

But, it’s not even something that is for the future. It’s a concept that is in place today, and it’s shaking up customer interactions on a daily basis – and for the better. 

Terry Walby is a British tech entrepreneur, who, aside from founding Thoughonomy in 2013 (the industry’s first SaaS-based automation platform) and having experience in businesses like IBM, GE Capital, Computacenter and automation specialist, IPsoft, is at the forefront of developing cutting-edge conversational AI products. 

His latest venture is OpenDialog, a conversational AI platform to design, develop and deploy smarter human-to-machine interactions. He believes that conversation is the next battleground to enable improved efficiencies and enhance consumer experiences. 

Conversational AI is a fast-growing market, and it’s also a fascinating one. It sits at the intersection of customer success, psychology and innovative tech. So, we decided to chat with Terry to hear more about OpenDialog and the future of conversational AI.

Looking back at Thoughtonomy, the company you created, scaled and sold to Blue Prism in 2013 for €100 million, and looking at OpenDialog today, how do you think your experience in the first connected or evolved to the current one?

The experience of creating and building Thoughtonomy was hugely valuable in approaching the journey to launch and scale OpenDialog, and we have been able to leverage the many lessons we learned in creating a bold but achievable plan for OpenDialog, avoid the mistakes we made along the way, and double down on the strategies that were successful. 

In addition, the software platform we created delivered huge value to organisations in automating manual processes and underpinning digital transformation.

The OpenDialog proposition is, in many ways, the natural enhancement to that concept, with a focus on using human-like conversational interactions to drive the execution of tasks and processes. Conversation interfaces are changing the way organisations interact, while what we deliver is often manifested as chatbots, in fact, what we are doing is using conversational interfaces to help business to automate tasks, augment human resources, rethink the way they work, and unleash a world of new possibilities 

Do you think that chatbots are being built the wrong way currently? What do you think is still lacking in most of the platforms?

Largely yes. The problem has been that while it hasn’t been impossible to build rich, complex and rewarding experiences, the level of investment in time and resources to get to that goal has been insignificant, and the resulting applications are often brittle, difficult to change, hard or expensive to scale, and require high levels of technical expertise. 

OpenDialog takes a completely different approach that means those human-like conversations can be built by non-experts for a fraction of the cost, can be managed and iterated with ease, and scale rapidly as usage increases.

A lot of that has to do with context. A chatbot interpreting the words you use and extracting meaning from them is not difficult. But, without an understanding of the context of the conversation and without the ability to remember what has been said and why, the conversation will be one-dimensional and unrewarding. 

OpenDialog solves what experts in the field refer to as the “holy grail of conversational ai” – contextually aware, fluid, multi-turn conversations.

How does OpenDialog help businesses to have an upper hand in their brand journey and interactions with prospects and customers?

Our belief is that we can change the landscape of how people interact with technology, providing a rich conversational interface to underpin human-to-machine interactions. That will provide a step change in the experience prospects and customers have in interacting with a brand digitally using sprawling websites and complex online forms, but also a functionally rich, always-on, alternative or augmentation to human-to-human interaction such as contact centres and helplines.

What is the secret to accelerating product development within conversational AI? How do you balance better customer experiences in the touch points with the brand against the automation of processes and the lack of human interaction?

The secret sauce for OpenDialog was tearing up the rulebook that is used by other providers in this space and designing the platform from a set of first principles borne out of academic research into multi-party collaboration. 

Ultimately a person connecting with a brand wants to find a product, to solve a problem, to execute a task, to report a problem or to have a question answered. While we often assume the best customer experience is delivered by human-to-human interaction, a conversational AI platform enables us to engage with natural human-like dialogue, simulating human conversations.

 We are changing how people interact and perform everyday tasks like customer support, delivering better experiences, more easily, more reliably, in any language, without constraints of agent availability, 24 hours a day, and with an interaction that feels natural and engaging. 

We are now at the inflexion point where a rich conversational AI experience can now provide the most rewarding way to interact and deliver a better customer experience. 

Omnichannel and conversational AI are here to enhance the productivity and capabilities of companies with their customers and suppliers. What are the opportunities for SMEs? 

One of the great things about OpenDialog is that we have created a cloud-based, software-as-a-service platform which uses a no-code interface to allow non-experts to build engaging conversations.

 It can be deployed cost-effectively and efficiently to organisations of all sizes. For a mid-size company or SME, we provide enterprise-class capabilities at a price point that is affordable, cost-justified and flexible. We are working with large established brands, but also with organisations at the very start of their journey, creating new products and services or addressing new markets. 

Can you tell us a couple of use cases with famous clients that indicated the software is what you wanted it to be?

We just published a case study with The Cyber Helpline, a charity focused on providing support for victims of cybercrime and staffed by volunteers. While not the most famous of brands, what I love about that is the metrics. Over 83% of queries are resolved through a conversation via OpenDialog, saving the workload of what would otherwise require 192 volunteers. It’s amazing to see that level of outcome. 

We are also working with more well-known brands such as BDO and Bayer to facilitate conversational interactions with their clients, and in the case of BDO to open up an entirely new market for their services. These examples and the value our platform delivers every day, reinforce our confidence that the platform is solving real problems and delivering real value to clients large and small across a variety of use cases. It’s incredibly exciting to see where we go next.

What are the next steps for OpenDialog, and where do you envision the start-up to be in 2025?

Our funding round has provided us with the ability to make strategic investments in the things that will help us to deliver value to our clients. That includes helping to surface the opportunities that exist, deliver a rapid return on investments into our platform, and expand and scale their ambition as to what is possible. It also allows us to drive our program of continual innovation, R&D, and product enhancement for the benefit of both existing and new users of the platform. Our goal is that by 2025, many hundreds of customers are executing many millions of transactions through conversations via the OpenDialog platform and that we will remain passionate, ambitious and excited about the potential of conversation to change the way humans interact with technology.

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Bernardo Arnaud
Bernardo Arnaud
Bernardo lives in Vienna and has been consulting and advising companies for 18 years in fintech, commodities trading, telecom assets management, messaging, jobs marketplaces, agribusiness, luxury, e-commerce and SaaS. He founded a few companies throughout his entrepreneurial journey.

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