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Can AI really benefit cash-strapped SMBs?

Over the last few years, Artificial Intelligence (AI), has spread beyond the realm of IBM’s super-computer Watson, into the houses and pockets of billions around the globe courtesy of the likes of Apple’s Siri & Amazon’s Alexa.

While AI may have evolved from a rather abstract, sci-fi concept, to a real-life, practical part of our conscious everyday lives, there are many around the globe who question its relevancy & impact to the small-medium business (SMB) community — a community that is still so important to the economic prosperity of almost every country around the globe.

One of the first & most obvious challenges to the SMB space is the associated cost. Fortunately, for businesses on a budget, AI investment & deployment doesn’t need to break the bank.

While developing your own AI is undoubtedly a complex and time-consuming process requiring a considerable amount of investment, fortunately, several tech companies have open-sourced their AI efforts in a bid to make AI more accessible to greater sections of society (including SMBs). Leveraging platforms such as Google’s Tensor Flow or Facebook’s fast Text can save SMBs both considerable cost & time.

A common mistake that is often made by organisations is to think that AI needs to be rolled out across the entire business — this is not the case. By launching on a smaller scale & leveraging ready-made ‘plug & play’ solutions, a SMB can efficiently harness the capabilities of AI & improve performance across specifically identified departments & areas.

Companies in general need to be aware that AI enablement cannot simply be achieved overnight, & going all-in and investing heavily is not recommended especially at the SMB level. SMBs should look to start slow & increase their AI efforts gradually over time, guided by the following three steps:

· Define: outline clear expectations of what AI can and cannot do for your specific business

· Measure: assessing should be done against meaningful baselines

· Decide: agree whether the experiment worked or not & if it fails, don’t be afraid to fail fast

SMBs rarely have the luxury of the huge research & development funds their enterprise cousins often do, so let’s look at three clear examples of how AI can directly & immediately benefit SMBs.

The first & maybe most obvious, is its impact on sales & marketing functions. Customer-relationship management (CRM), systems are already designed to gather customer data across communication channels such as email, phone and social with the purpose of helping improve and even automate the sales process.

Platforms such as Salesforce have already begun implementing AI that helps small business owners analyse customer feedback from those communication channels and then automatically adjust marketing & lead generation activities based on that information, making a clear & tangible ROI from AI easy to see.

A second, very popular example of AI at work is the Chatbot. More & more product & service-based companies of all sizes have begun using Chatbots on their websites over the last 24 months to initiate customer communication & help answer basic questions — think of a Chatbot as a sales & customer service rep that works for you 24/7, even when you’re asleep!

Chatbots are likely something you’ve already encountered before, whether you realised you were dealing with AI or not. Chances are, if you’ve seen one of those popups on the bottom right of the screen when you first visit a website asking if you have any questions, you’ve probably already had a conversation with a Chatbot.

For many small businesses at the start of their journey, budget for dedicated customer service or sales teams is not yet an option — if that’s the case, a Chatbot can help alleviate the pressure & allow you to focus your time on the tasks that matter most.

Finally, did you ever wish there was a way of analysing every bit of digital information your competitors produce (from written & video content to social media posts), in a quick, easy to digest way? AI can significantly improve an SMB’s ability to gain competitive advantage over its fellow market players.

Competitor analysis tool Crayon, for example, uses AI to track competitors across various digital channels such as their websites & social media channels, & gathers varieties of data, including slight adjustments to marketing language & even pricing changes.

These types of competitive intelligence AI tools mean SMBs can gather much more detailed information faster, allowing them to respond faster, & can be implemented as a plug & play tool, rather than needing hours of coding or substantial IT back-office investment.

Just like during the late 80s & early 90s, when some businesses considered investment in computers as part of their future growth & development plans, SMEs who can rationalise value through specific AI investment will find themselves surging ahead of their competition.

Much like the proliferation of the internet over the last 30 years & the inevitability of digitalisation this last decade, AI is a matter of when, not if, for the SMB & broader business community.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a simple question: can your business afford not to invest in AI?

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James Canham-Ash

Communicator, sportsman, history-lover, enthusiastic world citizen, political onlooker & aspiring BBC WS presenter, not always in that order — TMO.