Small businesses employ almost half of the workers in the United States. In Europe, more than a third of workers were employed by small businesses. Various estimates put overall global employment by small businesses at around 7 of every 10 people. Most of those numbers came before the pandemic hit, however. Unfortunately, these small businesses have hit major economic hurdles since then, so they need a new edge to maintain and expand their ability to drive communities and economies forward. Artificial Intelligence—AI, could be the key to make that happen.
If you thought AI was only for the big businesses, think again. To stay competitive, small businesses need the freedom and agility even relatively simple AI solutions can offer. And yet, one survey of 230 tech and business executives showed that fewer than 30 percent of them use automated tools to help them with repetitive tasks—although incredibly useful and reliable AI tools are already available. How can small businesses put these tools to work in this challenging environment?
What is AI anyway?
Artificial intelligence was already taking shape back in the 1950s. Over the years, it's taken on many new monikers like "machine learning" or "cognitive computing," basically, it's computers using algorithms to crunch data into useful insight that people can use to do things faster and more efficiently. If you use Siri or Alexa, you're already using AI to find the nearest Pho restaurant or reorder laundry detergent. These friendly machines "learn" about your needs and crunch data for you, so you have more time to perfect your sourdough technique in the kitchen, or play soccer with the kids.
Flip that into a small business environment, and you can use AI to crunch sales data, analyze trends, and forecast finances. AI recruitment tools can help you sift through numerous resumes to pick your best employee. That leaves you and your team more time to build meaningful personal relationships with clients, going the extra mile to add personal touches and customizations. It can give you more time to create your next big idea.
Misconceptions about AI
Movie-style AI and reality AI are still quite different. Imagine a robot that can make you a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch. Then imagine a robot who has learned, from observational data, that you like grilled cheese on Tuesday, but you'd really rather have a Buddha bowl on Wednesday. Optimal AI should learn from context and change as well as the incoming data, the same way humans learn how to handle new situations daily. As we gain more knowledge about how to do things better, we change the way we perform daily tasks. That's the goal for AI. We don't really want robots to replace human jobs. We want AI to make our jobs easier and give us the freedom to do creative things robots can't do. Currently, robots are only good at doing a set of things that we tell them to do. AI is the brains of the operation—software that can adapt and help the machine learn new things and adjust its actions to new situations. As of now, there are some things that AI can do significantly well, and small businesses should leverage those tools to gain competitive agility.
Ways AI Can Help
Most small businesses can't budget for the bigger, on-premises IT infrastructure they'd need for a robust AI-based solution. That doesn't mean small businesses can't enjoy AI benefits. Partnering with an external AI expert can provide access to AI tools and expertise for squeezing the most juice out of those tools. In fact, this way can be better than trying to do it on your own and getting confused by the options, falling down rabbit holes, and wasting critical time you need for focusing on your own products, services, and customers. A partner like Spark Equation can guide you in the right direction, based on your unique goals and needs, with the correct tools, all within your budget.
Even if customized AI software isn't what you need now, the market already has several useful AI tools especially made for small businesses to use now. Naturally, don't just drop cash without thinking it through first. To choose the right out-of-the-box solution, ask the following questions to ensure you make the best choice:
- What do I want to get out of this technology, and how can I measure its success? Before purchasing anything, set goals and benchmarks to guide how you implement and assess your technology investment, and only invest in those solutions that will churn out the best ROI.
- What did I discover from proven-use case studies? Learn from the experiences of others in your industry as they adopted AI tools before jumping in yourself. Let them make the mistakes first, consider their outcomes, and make wiser choices.
- Have I pinpointed the most significant risk sources and prioritized gaps for remediation? AI can help you perform complex, multivariate analyses to help you find the signals through the noise that can identify those gaps.
- Have you identified your current workflow problems? This can help you find the "best fit" AI product to help you smooth out jagged workflows and focus strategies for cost and time savings.
- Have you created a spreadsheet ranking what you've learned about the impacts of AI solutions you've read case studies about? This is a great way to list and rank different opportunities against your top five to seven growth criteria. For example, you could rank based on the cost of acquisition and implementation, AI maturity, projected economic benefit, ease of use, etc. Apply both qualitative and quantitative measures into your model and pick the one that performs best.
Some examples of ready-to-go AI products that have helped small businesses achieve real business value include:
- CRM Salesforce
- Virtual assistant Alexa/Google
- Lead generation resource OptinMonster
- Multichannel campaign analyzing tool Acquisio
After picking an AI tool, or having a customized tool developed for you, here are some of the ways you can use it to help your small business thrive:
One of those ready-to-use solutions, Salesforce, is the biggest customer relationship management package (CRM) on the market. They actively fold AI into everything they provide. Take their release of Einstein, for example. They wanted to deliver real-time, actionable customer relationship insights and predictions to help businesses expand their customer bases. Those insights help you identify trends that your sales reps, service agents, and marketers can use to grow even more successful with the data you already own.
AI isn't a magic crystal ball, but it can capture signals often missed by the sales team, even with their sharpest eyes scanning for correlations between customer data and new opportunities. AI-integrated predictions about customer needs and behavior help you enhance customizations, anticipate needs, and deliver delight to build thriving customer relationships.
Although small businesses don't have the same kind of luxurious data sources giant corporations have access to, they can maximize their insights from the data they already have by using AI. From fiery startups to classic mom-and-pop shops, decision-makers can use predictive modeling tools to analyze CRM data to discover and take advantage of customer behavior patterns the untrained eye might miss.
Wasted time is a massive drag on expenses, and no small business can afford that. Yet research indicates that unproductive and inefficient tasks can eat up nearly a third of an employee's salary. AI-based solutions can help you gain visibility into ways to save time and eliminate time waste, helping you make sure every moment is spent productively.
Streamline the Budget
Although implementing AI has to be factored into the budget, once it's there, it can actually help you automate the headaches of sifting through enormous piles of budget data so you can find leaks and inefficiencies in the budget. You can then trim excesses to make smarter decisions and eliminate wasteful spending.
How Can AI Help Your Small Business?
Artificial intelligence can support your very human creative and customer relationship efforts by doing the menial work and number crunching that would ordinarily take you a lot longer on your own. This way, it can boost your productivity in critical areas that can make customers choose you over even a larger, seemingly more powerful competitor. For example, AI tools can tag products and manage inventory. A great CRM tool can find the real insight needles in haystacks of data in moments instead of hours. This gives you the agility to act on this information quickly to respond to the needs and desires of your customers. Artificial intelligence email marketing tools can customize messages based on subscriber activity, learning what the customer needs and alerting you when an opportunity arises.
Do you have a small business that is already using AI to generate value? Do you see areas in your operations where AI could remove some headaches? Talk with our AI experts about your needs, and let's find you some unexpected opportunities for growth with machine learning.