Big businesses tend to be at the forefront of revolutionary technology both because they have the budget to invest in costly products and the most to gain from transforming processes. Nevertheless, for small businesses, it would be short-sighted to dismiss artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and related automation technologies as expensive, complicated and even somewhat alien solutions. In reality, the time has come for small businesses to take advantage of automation today.
AI technologies are now more accessible and cost-effective than ever, making them a viable tool for small businesses on relatively scanty budgets. It’s like all other technologies. As more and more companies develop and adopt automation and AI solutions, the competition has increased and the costs have come down. After all, small businesses account for more than 40% of US GDP and more than half of net job creation. They also represent over 99% of actual businesses in the US. Obviously, every AI solution vendor wants their products to be accessible to this massive potential pool of customers.
Like any other type of technology, AI has a wide range of uses. Small businesses can take advantage of AI and automation technologies today in numerous important areas – marketing automation tools to reach new prospects, chatbots to improve customer service, process automation software to improve back-office efficiency, and talent management solutions to hire smarter.
Of equal importance – automation produces digital data. Data fuels machine learning and drives AI. No business, however small, can afford to ignore automation. Doing so exposes your business to nimbler competitors lurking around the corner with a fully digital operating model.
Let’s look at some of the ways small businesses can benefit from automation and AI right now.
1. Use Chatbots for effective and fun customer service
According to Gartner, 85% of all customer service interactions will be non-human by 2020. Some of the immediate benefits chatbots can offer any small business are providing 24/7 customer service and pulling up relevant information within seconds, drastically reducing the time and energy normally involved in the process.
But depending on your industry, there are many creative ways to use chatbots to offer not just speedy and quality service, but an engaging experience for users.
Create a unique, engaging customer service experience
When NatGeo was promoting its show about Einstein, viewers could directly message them on Facebook to speak with a chatbot named “Einstein” who spoke in a unique, distinct voice developed to engage with them and spark interest in the show and its historical figure.
Reach customers where they are, instead of asking them to come to you
Restaurant chains like Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and Burger King allow customers to place orders directly on social media, making their promotions and products more readily accessible than those who don’t use chatbots for order placement on social media.
Taco Bell’s “TacoBot” on the chat platform Slack. Source
Businesses can build their own chatbots or partner up with existing chatbot companies. The costs of deploying chatbots depend on the level of the chatbot’s complexity and the range of platforms you want them to work on.
Chatbot company GoHire’s founder Jonathan Duarte says, “Most chatbots with 1,000+ interactions with contacts will range at the low-end of $500 per month, depending on the integrations, levels of script, reporting, debugging, AI and NLP requirements, and future enhancements.”
There’s room for small businesses to leverage AI technology with chatbots at multiple budget levels. You can utilize the tech on a smaller scale than big brands, but still benefit from the investment.
2. Automate processes to prepare for a data-centric future
Just about everything in administration can benefit from some level of process automation. Scheduling meetings, processing forms, and organizing files are things that don’t require much skill. Yet, manual tasks like these eat up a large chunk of time that takes away from the more fundamental aspects of running a business.
Worse still, relying on paper, email and Excel for everyday activities locks up your business data in hard-to-find places like file folders, SharePoint repositories or filing cabinets.
Without digital data, your small business cannot take advantage of machine learning and AI.
Let automation take care of necessary but time-consuming tasks
Every business relies on day-to-day processes – things like on-boarding new hires, processing purchase orders, and handling time off requests. These core activities are essential to operate but, at most small businesses, they’re riddled with inefficiency.
Employees waste too much time chasing paperwork and correcting mistakes. Small businesses already have resource constraints when it comes to talent. They simply cannot afford unproductive employees.
Process automation software removes these inefficiencies and improves productivity. Modern systems reduce data entry and errors when filling out forms, automatically send to the right people for approvals, send notifications and reminders, and facilitate record keeping.
Prepare for a future awash in data
Most important, these digital processes generate digital data. This is a critical step towards becoming a data-driven organization that’s likely to flourish in the 21st century. After all, without process automation you cannot access your proprietary business data. Without access to your data, you cannot deploy ML and AI.
Modern process automation platforms are easy to use, cloud-based and do not require skilled programmers. They’re increasingly accessible to small businesses who stand to benefit significantly.
3. Find and hire the right people
Attracting and retaining world-class is one of the top determinants of success in the 21st century. Small businesses generally don’t have the HR resources of larger companies to find the right talent. They might struggle to hire people with the right skill sets in their own networks, which tend to be smaller.
There may even be plenty of interest and more than enough applicants for an opening. Nevertheless, small businesses don’t have the time and the staff to go through them all. Screening candidates is the biggest headache for recruitment professionals, with 52% saying it’s the hardest part of their job.
Yet the first hires for a business are crucial for setting the stage correctly. This is an area where AI can reach out and identify those people that you may not have access to otherwise, as well as help you hire those who are likely to be more invested in your company.
The potential for AI technology in the hiring space is vast. From analyzing facial expressions to patterns in the resume or speech to predict future behavior or interests, AI tech in recruitment at times sounds exactly like the kind of futuristic stuff out of science fiction.
However, on a purely practical level for small businesses, at the very least AI can help by combing through applications for you, identifying relevant skill sets and removing implicit biases such as education, gender, and ethnicity. More and more, companies are using AI tech in hiring to reach candidates they might have overlooked because of other factors but have the right skills for the role.
Companies like Arya, Mya and SEEK offer AI-based solutions to help the hiring process for all types of businesses. Small companies struggling with their hires may benefit from this type of technology to save time and produce better results in recruitment.
4. Understand your marketing data
One of the biggest benefits small businesses can receive from AI technology lies in marketing automation. When you’re strapped for resources, it’s hard to dedicate any time to combing through data like customer behavior, preferences, demographics, and anything that might help you understand your customers.
Yet having access to this kind of data, analyzing it and applying to your business can make an absolutely drastic difference for your company.
When food company Dole used AI to analyze its customer data, they found that focused geo-targeting would help them grow market shares for one of its food categories. As a result, after applying this insight to their marketing campaigns, they saw 12 times the normal social engagement as well as an 87% increase in sales for the targeted region.
Marketing automation technology is accessible through companies like Marketo and HubSpot. Both offer plans in different tiers based on business size and needs, so small businesses can benefit from the tech just as much as enterprise companies.
Automation and AI are accessible to everyone
It’s not hard to see how, given enough resources, businesses can invest in the latest automation and AI technology to improve processes. Today, the technologies have already reached a point where even individual business owners can readily use automation solutions to further various business goals.
As artificial intelligence continues to seep into our everyday lives, small businesses can no longer continue to ignore automation and AI solutions. Yes, they reduce costs and provide a competitive edge. However, in a world awash in data, automating processes and analyzing the resultant data is a must to thrive in the 21st-century.
Anything else is short-sighted at best and could destroy your business at worst. Think about how quickly Barnes & Noble and Blockbuster were upended by well-funded competitors with a fully digital operating model.
The good news is that the market for automation and AI-based solutions is vast and abundant, offering a range of options for businesses of all sizes, needs, industries, and budgets.