Embracing AI in small businesses

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Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools are no longer the sole domain of big corporations. AI technology is now available and affordable for smaller, family-run businesses and growth companies across many industries.

While AI can perform some of the most complex tasks imaginable faster than ever before, many of AI’s applications are highly practical, taking mundane, rote, time-consuming tasks off of your small team’s plate. Small business owners are learning fast that using AI in business, even on a limited scale, can reduce costs, create new efficiencies and amplify innovation and growth.

According to SalesForce, “Although only 8% of SMBs are using AI today, it appears the technology’s adoption across smaller businesses will accelerate fast in the near future: Almost half (46%) of SMB leaders believe their businesses are ready to use AI and an additional 32% of small businesses have plans to implement AI, representing a potential growth rate of 310% over the next three years.” 

For smaller, family-owned and -operated businesses, AI deployment is an opportunity to not only increase revenues in multiple ways, but it also represents a key avenue to differentiate your business from the 92% of SMBs yet to embrace this technology. In addition, AI has advanced to the point where executing AI technology requires less heavy lifting for your team to get it up, running and producing results. 

Smaller growth companies, regardless of industry, that integrate AI into their operations, marketing and sales processes, could realize the following benefits:

  • Increased efficiency
  • Reduced costs
  • Improved results
  • Stronger customer intelligence
  • Improved responsiveness and customer experience

Like any change, small businesses should pick their spots for AI use, identifying an area where the return on investment is highest, i.e. AI low-hanging fruit. Let’s take a look at a few target areas where deploying AI will provide your small business the greatest bang for the buck. But beware: AI is not a panacea for every challenge; there are risks, too, which we’ll also take a look at later in this blog.

Know Your Customers Better Than Your Competition

AI can help you contextualize your customer data while also reducing time-consuming tasks like data entry, providing your marketing and sales teams actionable customer intelligence and more time to perform higher level tasks, respectively. To be fair, this use of AI for big data capture and analysis is a more complex instance of AI use and one that companies new to AI should work towards over time.

That said, the benefits of AI-empowered CRM (customer relationship management) can be remarkable. When at full power, AI-driven CRM can be a game-changing force for small businesses in growth mode.

As cited by Destination CRM, Katherine Kostereva, CEO and managing partner at Creatio (formerly bpm’online), says AI built into CRM can be used for a broad range of functions. “For example, AI scores prospects and offers the best possible sequence of steps for sales and marketing to turn cold leads into opportunities. It also spots key words in emails to the service team and then automatically prioritizes them. In other words, AI does exactly what it is supposed to—automates tasks and makes predictions, thus lowering mistakes and bias.” 

The benefits of using AI to efficiently collect, organize and contextualize customer data are clear, but perhaps the biggest benefit of all is the gift of time for your marketing and sales teams. According to Forbes, “nearly two-thirds (64.8%) of reps’ time, on average, is spent in non revenue-generating activities, leaving only 35.2% for functions related to selling. 

Imagine flipping that percentage with AI. 

Elevate the Customer Experience

Today’s customers expect “always-on” service, which can be tough for smaller businesses with limited human capital and budgets. This might not be fair, but it is today’s reality for all types of companies.

Chatbots are a terrific first step for smaller businesses looking to jump into AI in an area with high upside. Chatbots empower smaller businesses with lean customer services teams to provide the 24/7/365 responsiveness modern customers expect. 

“Chatbots can help businesses save on customer service costs by speeding up response times, freeing up agents for more challenging work, and answering up to 80% of routine questions,” according to a recent blog post by IBM. According to Chatbots Magazine via that same IBM blog, “businesses can reduce customer service costs by up to 30% by implementing conversational solutions like virtual agents and chatbots.”

Chatbots, also known as virtual assistants, can provide instant responses to customers; they are also intelligent enough to triage customer needs and learn from each customer interaction. A single, bad customer experience can result in a loyal customer leaving your brand; AI and virtual assistants can eliminate a key source of frustration among customers: lack of responsiveness to their questions and needs,

HubSpot ranked some of the top Chatbots recently, producing the following top seven list:

  • Watson Assistant
  • Bold360
  • Rulai
  • LivePerson
  • Inbenta
  • Ada
  • Vergic

Deploying AI can be simple if you use an out-of-the-box solution, or it can be slightly more complex if you choose to develop your own AI tool. Regardless of the path you select, both are easier to integrate and more affordable than ever, making AI a smart choice for smaller businesses.

Back Office Automation

AI can help streamline and automate back office tasks like bookkeeping, for example. All forms of manually completed paperwork are hotspots for inefficiency, human error and waste.  

If 80% or even 50% of your paperwork is fully automated, segments of your team now have more time to innovate and develop existing or new skills. They will be able to do more meaningful and rewarding work; they can grow and they’ll be happier, which means greater productivity and talent retention. This is not just about saving money and it should not necessarily be about downsizing your staff; rather, it is looking at AI not as a threat or a shiny object you can’t possess, but as a focused tool to help your people and businesses grow.

According to the website Keap, “Employees entered client information into systems or spreadsheets, one word at a time. They spent much of their days typing e-mail replies, calling clients about appointments, and chasing paperwork to be completed.

Plenty of offices still operate this way. The manual work may partially explain why entrepreneurs say they spend 68 percent of their time managing daily to-dos in their business instead of working on their business strategy and goals, according to a survey from The Alternative Board, a membership organization for business owners.”

For automating back office tasks, there are a host of companies to choose from that provide automation like DocuSign, Uipath and Automation Anywhere. You can view a full list of top back office automation companies here.

Imagine a world where boring, human-error prone, repetitive tasks are handled by AI more efficiently and by expending less labor and time; more strategy development, more innovation and more productive employees—key elements for growth—will be the spoils of AI.

AI Coding

When at full power, AI-driven CRM can be a game-changing force for small businesses in growth mode.

Make Hiring More Efficient

Hiring will always be risky but it doesn’t have to be so time-consuming and detrimental to other areas of a business. AI can automate many hiring tasks and help your team uncover stronger candidates:

  • AI can automatically select candidates by scanning big job sites using criteria you provide. Companies like Ideal and others specialize in the recruiting and hiring space.
  • AI can also automate the candidate pre-screening process using chatbots to contact possible hires early in the process, asking a set series of screening questions and then sending your team a detailed transcript of the interaction. Avrio is one such AI platform with this functionality.
  • AI can automate interview scheduling with your team. Paradox Olivia and x.ai are technologies that engage with candidates and can integrate with your calendar to schedule interviews your team then confirm.
  • AI can locate passive candidates. Sometimes, the best fit for an open position isn’t active in the job market; they are currently employed elsewhere. AI can help you unearth these candidates by scanning the internet for candidates that are likely to change jobs in the near future. Engage Talent and Entelo both provide this service via AI platforms.

Leveraging AI to make hiring more efficient on the front end of the process can save smaller businesses a ton of time and money while mitigating some of the inherent risk. If you make a bad hire, it hurts much less to know the process to get to that point was cost-effective and time efficient

Keep AI Risks in Mind

As this blog has laid out, AI can produce great benefits for small businesses of all kinds. However, choosing to pursue AI and add it to your toolkit includes risks that you need to keep top of mind.

  • Doing Too Much, Too Quickly. Integrating AI is simpler than ever, but it still requires changes to your organization, including new protocols and training to ensure the investment you make in AI will produce maximum results. Starting small and scaling AI up slowly and thoughtfully, will help you and your team manage these changes without becoming overwhelmed, frustrated or threatened by this new tool.
  • Fearing the Unknown. Be transparent and open about what AI means for your employees. Many people associate automation with job loss or a reduction in responsibility. It is imperative for your leadership team to show your employees how AI will make them more productive, more innovative and happier, given that many dull, painful rote tasks will be taken off of their plates, transforming the very nature of what they do and how they do it for the better.
  • Becoming Too Lean. AI is not designed to replace your team; its purpose is to augment it. People will remain the driving force behind your small business growth; drastically reducing your staff because you believe everything can be automated is a mistake that a small business cannot afford to make. See AI as a key tool in your toolbox and as part of a suite of assets, which includes your skilled, loyal team, to use to spark growth.
  • Becoming Impersonal. The importance of creating personal connections with your customers will not be replaced by AI. If your customers only interact with chatbots and virtual assistants, this defeats the purpose of AI because customers will not value this experience. While providing instant responsiveness through AI is a positive, and will help retain customers, being too dependent on AI in your customer experience strategy will create frustration and cause once loyal customers to abandon your brand. AI for customer service is meant to streamline early interactions and triage customers based on need, teeing these customers up for customer service, sales reps and marketing staff to provide a remarkable customer experience that differentiates your small business from your competitors. 

If you’d like to learn more about how bots and leveraging Big Data can help your business, reach out to us. We can help. We’d love to hear more about your business and its challenges.

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