In the past couple of years, artificial intelligence has become the darling of large corporations looking to leverage their vast customer bases and data warehouses to drive efficiencies and insights. The idea is that advances in computing power allow those with huge amounts of data to create advantages in the market. So, if you need large amounts of data and a sizeable investment to implement, where does that leave the small business community?
I believe entrepreneurs and small businesses can leverage AI as an essential tool to unlocking a competitive edge in today's accelerating small business landscape.
Whether it's automating basic tasks or leveraging data to unearth insights that were previously inaccessible, AI can make a small business more productive, efficient and informed. But the advantages run far deeper than mere operational efficiencies. Advanced technology like AI has leveled the playing field, allowing you to scale your small business and go head-to-head with large corporations. In turn, those unique advantages that small businesses have always had - close customer engagement, niche products and services and strong company identity - will be even more valued in the eyes of the customer.
The good news - today, AI is more accessible to the small business than you might think. Here are five tangible ways you can use AI to power your small business and stay ahead of the competition:
1. Automate back office tasks.
In a recent Bank of America study, small business owners said that the biggest roadblock to work-life balance was the administrative tasks involved in keeping their business afloat. AI can take care of those repetitive, time-consuming and mundane administrative tasks, so your time can be spent on more strategic, entrepreneurial work. This can range from automating simple customer service inquiries to putting AI to work on accounting needs. In fact, you might already be using AI at your business in this fashion: Intuit has 30 AI and machine learning-based products and services in the market already - including the expense management system built into QuickBooks Self-Employed.
2. Make smarter business decisions.
Entrepreneurs need to make a ton of difficult decisions. AI can be your unbiased advisor, methodically sorting through the mounds of data your business produces to surface deep insights. It can also expedite important business decisions, like deciding whether to enter a new market or adopt a new tool or technology. As an example, PwC's DeNovo tool, available to small businesses, evaluates the disruptive potential of a given financial technology and assesses whether and how a business can best leverage it.
3. Deliver highly personalized customer experiences.
Machine learning, an advanced form of AI, uses algorithms to glean hidden insights from data without being explicitly programmed to do so. By learning from past experiences, it's able to create more relevant and personalized experiences for customers (you can thank machine learning for all those useful Netflix and Amazon content recommendations). Personalized product experiences are hugely important for small businesses, as they're known for their personal touch with customers, but in-house machine learning requires an immense amount of data that small businesses often lack. Fortunately, small businesses can now easily and affordably adopt machine learning technology leveraging third-party tools and open source software. One example of this is Acquisio, an AI-based marketing tool specifically built for small businesses that helps them optimize the online customer acquisition process.
4. Gain customer insights for better decision making.
AI doesn't just use data to determine how customers might behave; it uses data to draw conclusions about how to better serve customers. If you want to stay competitive, you can use this information to identify patterns and make better decisions about how to evolve a product or service over time to meet customer needs. IBM's Watson Analytics program - available as a mobile app or on the web - helps businesses of all sizes make predictions about the future using all types of current data, including information from marketing, sales, HR, finance and so on.
5. Employ a virtual personal assistant.
AI-powered personal assistants can take care of everything from calendaring, to sending reminders, to scheduling meetings on your behalf. If you use Apple's Siri in your day-to-day life, you're already familiar with the basics of this, but she's hardly alone. A tool called x.ai provides a personal assistant for busy professionals that works by simply CCing an AI named "Amy" on your emails. These tools are particularly useful to solopreneurs or small business owners who lack the resources and aren't quite ready to make hires, but who still need to optimize their time.
As the practical benefits of AI are realized, more and more business professionals are warming up to the concept. Forrester recently found that more than half of surveyed business and tech professionals were considering implementing AI. Entrepreneurs and small business owners should be no exception. AI has the power to enrich the small business experience and help your business maintain its competitive edge against big and small players alike.
As you consider AI for your small business, a few practical tips to keep in mind: Start collecting data now so you can establish a healthy baseline. Think about what processes would benefit most from AI to help identify the right tools or resources. Consider what ROI you would want from an AI system to merit its cost, and critically, develop an implementation plan by mapping out your specific AI needs and strategic approach. Finally (and perhaps most importantly), continue differentiating your business by offering customers niche products and services. In a world that's increasingly automated, people will crave that unique personal touch that has always made small businesses so special.