As AI services have grown in scope, scale and affordability, small and medium-sized businesses are applying them to everyday tasks to make operations less expensive and resource intensive. AI can also reveal opportunities for growth that are hidden in data.
Artificial intelligence: a quick primer
Pre-AI computer programs excel at crunching numbers and organising information. AI programs add a layer of insight to those numbers. For example, an online retailer can use information about customers’ past purchases to suggest other products they might enjoy. Alternately, an AI-enabled speech recognition call processing system can recognise customers by their voice, call up their recent transactions and anticipate questions they might have.
Machine learning is another term associated with AI. This is a specific form of artificial intelligence that gets smarter over time. For instance, the more data an online analytics tool equipped with machine learning consumes, the better it becomes at predicting customer needs. Similarly, a cybersecurity solution with machine learning can learn what constitutes a normal online exchange and detect when users behave suspiciously.
Robotic process automation (RPA) is another aspect of AI that can assist small businesses. RPA bots mimic human actions such as following up invoices or filling in standard forms . By automating theses mundane and repetitive processes, teams can focus on more meaningful work.
“RPA frees up time by eliminating repetitive administrative processes, often carried out by high-value employees, giving small businesses more opportunities to focus on the exciting parts of their business,” says Andrew Phillips, managing director and vice president, Australia and New Zealand at RPA firm UiPath.
How AI can help improve your business
Artificial intelligence can make your business more aware, agile and anticipatory. It can help you stay attuned to market signals and improve how you respond. It can assist you to appropriately size your business operations and provide insights so you can respond to changing industry demands. Its predictive capabilities can rapidly identify and help you to capitalise on emerging opportunities.
AI is probably already embedded in many of the tools you use each day, such as social media platforms on which you market your business and in your accounting software.
Here are some other common AI uses:
- Analytics programs: AI is usually behind the ‘Recommended for you’ sections you are shown when you’re shopping online or streaming content. The AI tool uses previous purchases and shows you have watched to suggest a list personalised for you, using your past choices to guide its selection.
- Chatbots: These always-on, virtual customer service representatives pop up and chat with you on websites and are programmed to act like a human – ‘Hi, I’m Joe. How can I help you?’ Chatbots can help businesses field incoming queries 24/7.
- Cybersecurity: AI-based computer security solutions constantly scan networks for dubious activity. They’re smart enough to establish what normal baseline traffic patterns and behaviours look like and automatically track or shut down suspicious activity and accounts.
- Data management: Inputting, standardising and reconciling data across different worksites, departments or lines of business can be tedious and time-consuming. AI-equipped solutions can automate these processes to reduce the time they take and boost productivity.
- Data visualisation programs: Data visualisation tools use AI to quickly translate information into graphs and charts so key insights can be communicated at a glance.
- Fraud prevention tools: These systems are designed to provide enhanced security and privacy. They can track your voice, vocabulary and other data points such as behaviours and speech patterns to verify your identity in seconds.
- Inventory management solutions: AI tools can automatically detect shortages and reorder products on demand. They can also predict which products are likely to be best sellers and help your business stock and promote them.
- Marketing tools: AI solutions can help you deliver personalised and targeted promotions to customers who are about to make a decision to buy the products and services your business sells.
- Process improvement programs: These are designed to streamline and optimise internal processes and supply chain management programs. These tools track aspects of your day-to-day operations such as shipping, logistics and man hours to help the business work at peak efficiency.
- Screening and diagnostics: AI tools can rapidly scan and process millions of items of information, so they are increasingly used to find product defects. Some programs are so advanced they’re being used to scan for medical conditions and provide self-repairing maintenance solutions.
- Speech recognition: AI powers these conversations.
- Virtual assistants: From smartphones to tablets, these vocal helpers help us plan our days and calendars. Each is an example of AI at its most advanced.
Robotic Marketer is a useful example of an AI-powered tool available to small businesses. This marketing strategy software is based on AI, machine learning and big data. It turns information about a company, its business goals and marketing objectives into an actionable marketing strategy. With the power of AI, businesses are able to update their marketing strategies in real-time to keep up with continuous changes in the market. Whether it is an economic crisis or a pandemic, the 'robot' is able to deep dive into big data on the current climate, competitor landscape, and best practices to provide a business with an in-depth 12-month marketing strategy in a matter of minutes.
Elker is another cutting-edge tool powered by AI that offers small businesses as advantage. Elker uses an artificial-intelligence engine to receive and route reported incidents – both positive and negative – safely and anonymously, using a traffic light system. It is a flexible, real-time mechanism, including a choice of a mobile app or web platform, that allows organisations to identify trends and resolve disputes before they escalate. It keeps the reporter and the person to whom it is reported safe. It supports workplace culture, reduces unnecessary staff turnover and provides access to strategic data for business decisions.
Specialist food wholesale business Soft Stuff is one business that has embraced the power of AI. Faced with challenging market conditions when COVID-19 hit, it used AI-powered business intelligence platform Sisense to analyse its data to identify issues and roadblocks and devise a new B2C model. Now Soft Stuff sells directly to retail customers and has expanded its product range to include meat, poultry, fish and dairy. Sisense’s analytics platform will continue to play a role in the business’s future decision making.
Factors to consider when choosing AI tools
There are lots of AI tools you can embed in your operations in minutes. Many run on virtually any IT setup. When you’re choosing AI tools for your business don’t forget to take into account:
- Whether they are compatible with your IT system
- Whether they seamlessly integrate into your IT environment
- Contract and payment terms, including monthly service charges
- Setup or cancellation fees
- Customer service and support
- Security and fraud prevention features
- User experience
- Back-office capabilities
AI and machine learning are now easier to implement than they have ever been. They can provide a convenient and cost-effective way to maintain service levels and increase productivity, helping to safeguard your business against disruption.