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Artificial intelligence is rapidly making its way into the small-and-medium business (SMB) layer of the economy, with the same promises and pitfalls that it has brought to large organizations.
Both on the cloud and in the traditional data center, new services and software releases are bringing advanced AI tools to the less-than-mighty in low-cost, easy-to-use formats that don’t require rare and expensive skillsets to operate.
While these tools provide the capability to push numerous SMB processes into the fast lane, offering a lifeline to businesses that need all the help they can get when competing against the giants of ecommerce, they’re still like any other technology: there is a right way to use them and a wrong way.
But with developments happening so quickly and AI’s use case for SMBs still unclear, how can small business owners choose the platforms with the highest potential? And how easy will it be to change direction if need be?
AI at the ready
Mihai-Alexendru Cristea, of Romania’s Business Review, recently highlighted a number of ways AI is unfolding on the SMB stage. Applications ranging from CRM and HR to web and logo design are readily available, allowing organizations to rapidly adjust to changing business conditions. In some cases, these tools are built on low-code/no-code architectures, allowing non-technical staff to simply power it up and start using it. At the same time, chatbot platforms are allowing workers to dispense with drag-and-drop menus and other artifacts of the traditional user interface in favor of a more conversational approach.
While the help AI brings to employees is commendable, most small businesses are expected to leverage the technology to improve the customer experience. Grace Lau, director of growth content at communications platform Dialpad, noted recently that AI can help SMBs rapidly scale up their CX capabilities without breaking the budget.
AI-backed chatbot and self-help solutions operate 24/7 and have proven to be highly adept at addressing the vast majority of customer interactions or quickly directing callers to the appropriate expert or decision-maker. As well, AI outperforms traditional solutions in terms of speed, accuracy and overall satisfaction, leading to improved brand loyalty, more efficient processes and increased sales.
In order to achieve this level of success, however, the AI platform must be designed and trained properly. This requires a clear implementation strategy, including a well-mapped-out user journey and an efficient means of tracking performance and correcting processes that result in bad outcomes. On a fundamental level, one of the key advantages that AI provides over traditional software is the ability to learn from its mistakes and steadily optimize processes in pursuit of better, more personalized experiences.
The right AI for small business
Small business owners should also understand that there are different kinds of AI, and not all of them are suited to the needs of the typical enterprise. In most cases, says tech consultant Xavier Finch, SMBs will deploy some version of narrow AI, which is derived from highly specialized programs designed to accomplish specific tasks. These are the kinds of systems that save time and money performing tedious, time-consuming operations and even help identify new markets and new business opportunities. General AI, on the other hand, is the technology behind the thinking machines that seek to mimic the electro-chemical processes of the human brain. This is far more heady stuff and is still under development in various forms. At the moment, this type of AI is best left to the experts.
Because small businesses generally lack the resources and the skillsets to handle full-blown AI ecosystems, most will turn to out-of-the-box solutions either as cloud-based services or locally hosted platforms with extensive cloud support. While these might not offer the level of customization and flexibility as a tailored system, time-tracking software developer Timely points out that they do provide quick and easy implementation to put small businesses on the road to automation. In many cases, these tools are available on subscription for as little as $10 per month per user, with more feature-rich options available for under $20/m/u, and this allows organizations to scale deployments at their own pace.
The good news for SMBs is that it’s not too late to get started with AI. In fact, those who act now can still be considered to be on the cutting-edge of this technology wave when compared to most others at this economic level. And for any small organization that hopes to one day become one of the giants, failing to employ AI as soon as possible is probably the biggest mistake in the business plan.