For many small business owners, the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) may seem like a daunting challenge. It's easy to dismiss AI as a complicated and slightly alien tool that can only be used and understood by computer scientists and other experts at big tech companies, but this attitude is mistaken. In reality, there are many ways small businesses can take advantage of AI right now. And they shouldn't wait - their competitors certainly won't.

While it's often mythologized in popular culture and treated like a uniquely destabilizing economic force, AI is a lot like any other technology. As more and more companies have developed AI applications, competition and adoption rates have increased, driving down costs and making AI accessible to a much wider range of businesses. Small businesses account for more than half of net job creation and more than 40 percent of GDP in the United States. The developers of AI solutions want their products to be available to the entrepreneurs who fuel this massive engine of economic activity.

As AI becomes more popular among companies of all sizes, it will be all the more important for your small business to take advantage of what this revolutionary technology has to offer. Here are five ways to do just that.

#1: Use AI for data collection and analysis

Qualtrics recently conducted a study that analyzed feedback from 250 marketing leaders and found that 96 percent of them expect AI to handle repetitive research tasks such as data cleaning within five years. Meanwhile, 63 percent think AI will take over statistical analysis within the next decade.  

These changes aren't just taking place in the marketing industry. While AI is indispensable for large companies that have access to staggering quantities of consumer data, it's also vital for small businesses that want to draw meaningful conclusions from more modest amounts of information. Advanced techniques such as statistical regression analysis used to be unavailable to small businesses with limited budgets (consider the prohibitive cost of hiring an analytics firm or full-time data scientists), but AI has made them affordable and intuitive.

When small businesses have access to sophisticated statistical tools, they can learn more about their customers and discover new ones. Again, take the example of regression analysis, which allows you to make connections between a wide array of variables and determine how they're impacting your business. From determining what keeps customers coming back to your business to helping you discover new market niches, AI is a versatile statistical tool.

AI has also made it possible for small businesses to collect a significant amount of data in the first place. From sentiment analysis to machine learning algorithms that track customer preferences and habits (companies like Facebook allow companies of all sizes to use chatbots, which rely on machine learning), powerful data gathering mechanisms are now available to businesses large and small.

#2: Hire smarter with AI

Small businesses face unique challenges when it comes to finding and recruiting top talent. Large companies have name recognition, huge networks, and more resources to throw at job seekers. They also have dedicated, well-equipped HR departments that know how to move qualified candidates from first-round interviews to onboarding as quickly as possible. How can your small business compete with talent-gobbling machines like these?

AI is a great equalizer in the hiring battle. While recruiters used to have to manually sift through enormous piles of resumes and hope for the best, AI has made this process far more streamlined and expansive.

For example, machine learning algorithms can determine which past hiring practices were the most effective, such as where you looked for candidates and how you reached out to them. Other AI applications can learn what types of communication will appeal to specific candidates, discover solid leads in surprising places, and inform recruiters about the details of a candidate's work history and his or her fit for a particular role. These are all ways your hiring operation can be scaled up to help you compete with much larger companies.

#3: Make backend organization more efficient with AI

We often hear about how AI will take jobs, but it generally makes more sense to view AI as a technology that takes tasks. And many of these tasks are on the backend - logistics operations such as basic accounting, scheduling, and other forms of day-to-day organization. Considering the fact that small businesses have a limited number of employees, the transfer of time-consuming tasks like these to AI is crucial to help them use their human capital efficiently.

In a December 2017 article for Minutehack, the co-founder of inniAccounts, James Poyser, explains that his small business has made "significant strides to automate some elements of bookkeeping" with the help of AI. When AI is used for backend operations, it's also less of an encroachment on employees. Poyser is sensitive to this fact: "If people see AI as a threat to their job, which it isn't in our case, then it's game over."

On the other hand, most employees welcome technology that can get rid of monotonous tasks and free them up to do more meaningful work. As the respondents to our survey acknowledge, AI increasingly does just that.

#4: Deploy AI to better serve your customers

Companies have never had more ways to interact with their customers. From the explosion of communication channels online to consumers who expect far more engagement than ever before, it has become essential for companies to develop new ways to quickly address their customers' concerns. This is one of the reasons why Gartner predicts that a quarter of customer service operations will "integrate virtual customer assistant (VCA) or chatbot technology across engagement channels by 2020, up from less than two percent in 2017."  

According to the Qualtrics survey, "Researchers believe that nearly 1 in 4 surveys will be spoken to a digital assistant within 5 years." These projections give us good reasons to expect AI to play a more significant role in communication across industries in the coming years.

Chatbots and other forms of AI-based communication offer unique benefits for small businesses. Unlike companies that can afford to maintain 24-hour customer service lines, small businesses can't pay operators to answer calls or emails whenever they come in. AI-powered Chatbots provide assistance to customers whenever they need it and immediately answer questions from potential customers, offering small businesses a way to simultaneously improve customer experiences and generate new business.

#5: Develop an AI-driven marketing platform

Our survey found that 93 percent of marketing researchers think AI presents an opportunity for their industry. From eliminating the need for employees to do mechanical tasks such as data preparation to advanced data analysis (which our respondents cited as the top future AI application), AI is fundamentally changing marketing.

This is just as true for small businesses as it is for the largest companies in the world. While small businesses used to be limited to whatever ads they could afford in local markets, they now have the ability to reach a vast audience online. They can use AI-based advertising platforms that have been developed by huge companies like Facebook and Google to target specific consumers who are receptive to their message. They can collect and analyze consumer data from multiple channels. And they can do all of this without an army of marketers.

This is why it's no surprise that an April 2018 McKinsey report found that the impact of AI is "likely to be most substantial in marketing and sales." Small businesses should start integrating AI now if they want to reach as many consumers as possible in the future.

Published on: Oct 9, 2018