How Small Businesses Can Benefit from Artificial Intelligence

November 23, 2019 / Bryan Reynolds

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Artificial intelligence is changing aspects of how business is done today in exciting ways. And the promise of what this technology may be able to do in the future is all the more tantalizing.

And it’s true. If you’re a big business, AI is, well, big business. It’s not uncommon to read or hear about the ways AI and machine learning are changing the way data analytics (using “big data”) are done. Many of the other ways that AI is being deployed today are likewise usually discussed in a larger-scale enterprise-type context.

For the small business owner, all these big business AI discussions can be a bit discouraging. If you’re running a small business with, say, a single IT person, how can you hope to leverage AI? What are the chances that your lone IT person has the coding skills needed to leverage neural networks to find probabilistic matches in an incomplete data set spanning multiple databases?

They aren’t good.

So where does that leave you? Is AI something unreachable, something that’s only for the big guys?

Absolutely not. There are plenty of ways that small businesses can benefit from artificial intelligence. True, you’re not likely to be developing your own novel AI applications in-house. Unless you’re a very tech-focused small business, the needed skill set is more than you can hire for.

Even if you don’t have the capability to generate AI-powered solutions in house, there are still plenty of ways that AI can benefit small business. For example, there are a number off-the-shelf software solutions that can infuse your business with AI-powered insights. Let’s take a high-level overview together of the ways AI can benefit small businesses today.

This is part 3 of our 5 part series on artificial intelligence and machine learning

  1. Artificial Intelligence in Software Development

  2. How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Businesses Today: An Overview

  3. How Small Businesses Can Benefit from Artificial Intelligence

  4. Artificial Intelligence Opportunities and Challenges in Business

  5. 5 AI Powered Workflow Enhancements Small Businesses Can Use Today

Implement Off-the-shelf Workflow Enhancements Powered by AI

Even if you don’t have the ability to build novel AI solutions in house, you can still benefit through any number of off-the-shelf software solutions. The major software companies do have the personnel and the know-how to implement these solutions, and they are doing so.

Artificially intelligent innovations are steadily trickling down to the user level. Unsurprisingly, the first to see these were users in enterprise operations. But AI-powered software innovation is trickling all the way down to the home user or solopreneur level.

Many household names in the software industry are beginning to power up the latest versions of their software with artificial intelligence. We’ll cover this in depth in a future article, but for now we’ll look at just one example, an implementation of AI that’s quite simple and easy to understand.

Chatbox Workflow Frame b Frame

Case Study: Microsoft PowerPoint

Software and service juggernaut Microsoft is exploring a great many avenues for artificial intelligence, but one that’s already hit the market is an innovation in Microsoft PowerPoint called PowerPoint Designer. This AI-powered feature is available now in the most recent versions of Microsoft Office, including Office 365.

Before the AI-powered Designer tool, users were largely left on their own to design truly beautiful PowerPoint slides. You’d pick a theme, then perhaps pick a type of slide from the master template, but from there everything was manual. You’d add and resize pictures, add text boxes, puzzle over the placement of everything, and eventually settle on something. Your finished product rarely looked as good as it could (unless you had a knack for graphic design).

With Microsoft’s new Designer tool, the game has changed. This AI-powered and internet-connected tool dynamically analyzes whatever text and images you’ve placed on a slide and will generate multiple “looks” based on that content. In the first generation, the tool focused on text and images alone. For example, If it interprets that your image could work well as a full-screen background, it will suggest so. If it recognizes a list that seems sequential, it will automatically generate an infographic-style image or chart.

That alone was a transformative step for PowerPoint (and its users). But Microsoft didn’t stop there. Their most recent update extended beyond dynamic timelines and flow charts and into iconography. The Designer tool is analyzing the substance of your text and proactively recommending iconographic and visual enhancements based on your content.

They also added something called Designer Perspectives. If PowerPoint notices a large number, one that your audience may have a difficult time putting into perspective, it will suggest an accurate analogy or comparison. Microsoft gives the example that if you put on your slide that Afghanistan is about 652,232 square kilometers, PowerPoint will suggest adding “(roughly the size of Texas)” for US-based users.

It’s amazing how far PowerPoint capabilities have come in just a few short years since the introduction of the artificial intelligence powered Designer tool. And there’s more in the tool than we have space to cover. Check out Microsoft’s recent post on the technology.

Use Artificial Intelligence to Improve Customer Service Efficiency

One of the advantages small businesses have traditionally had over larger ones is a more organic connection to the customer. This is a great strength for small businesses, but it has two serious dangers.

First, this kind of deep customer relationship is difficult to scale well. If deep customer relationships is one of your key differentiators, you may enter a period of crisis as your company grows and the customer relationship weakens slightly.

Second, your large competitors already know about this advantage, and they’ve been trying to close the gap for years using customer relationship management (CRM) software. Large companies have certainly made huge strides in improving this customer relationship. While they can never replicate the kind of one-on-one in-person relationships you may enjoy with your customers, they can certainly utilize big data to tailor recommendations and offers in a way that’s “good enough.”

Whether you’re trying to scale your business or simply trying to stave off increasingly savvy larger competitors, the answer is the same.

Do what they’re doing. Start using AI-powered CRM software, and gain a higher level of understanding of your customers than you can do manually.

Step Into the Future with a Chatbot for Your Site

Another great way to harness the power of artificial intelligence as a small business is to implement a chatbot on your site. This strategy also helps to improve your relationship with and availability to customers.

You might think that such a technology is out of reach, but think again.

The truth is, whether you realize or not, you’ve probably already seen this in action across the web.

Have you ever visited a site and been greeted by a little chat box in the corner, where “Emily” or “Chad” or whoever else appears ready to chat with you? If so, chances are, you’ve seen a chatbot.

That’s right, there’s no Emily and no Chad. There’s just an artificially intelligent chatbot attempting to answer your basic questions in natural language. Yes, in many cases, a human takes over after a while. (That’s the point where “Emily” transfers you over to someone else—a real, live human.) But the initial chat messages? Almost certainly screened by an AI.

Related to the previous point: yes, it takes a fair amount of specialized skill to custom build a chatbot from scratch. But that’s not what most small businesses who have implemented chatbots are doing. They are, once again, starting with a prebuilt solution from a vendor. This prebuilt solution is customized for their business and industry, of course. This customization can be done without a serious understanding of AI or even advanced coding, though.

Implementing a chatbot takes the pressure off your customer service team. It also makes you more available to your customers: your chatbot can chat with a thousand customers at once if it needs to, and the customers will never know. The chatbot can also run 24/7. If it runs into a problem it can’t solve, it can refer to a human and let the customer know when to expect an answer.

Implementing a chatbot—even one based on a prebuilt solution—is more complex than our PowerPoint example. You’re likely going to need some assistance getting it up and running. If you’re interested in setting up a chatbot for your business, we can help. Contact us to start the process.

Animation of a Chat with an Artificial Intelligence

Improve Market Understanding through AI-Powered Analytics

No matter the size of your business, you can use AI in analytics. We get it: this may seem a complete pipe dream if you’re running a group of three donut shops or a single retail outlet, for example. But the truth is, it’s not.

All you need is a little know-how (or a partnership with a tech services firm that has that know-how), and you can use one of a handful of AI-powered analytics tools from companies like Amazon and Microsoft. Here, too, there’s no reason to start from scratch. It’s far easier to learn how to use an existing tool or framework than it is to learn how to build something custom from the ground up.

Why are analytics important? Several reasons. First, because your bigger competitors are using them, and you must do the same if you want to stay competitive.

The kinds of insights they are gaining from using AI-powered analytics tools are simply unavailable any other way. If you’re operating a single restaurant, you may be able to crunch the numbers manually to determine what’s working and what’s not.

But the larger your operation grows, the harder it will be to see the big picture without getting lost in the overwhelming details of your data. No human (or team of humans) can sift through data, draw connections and make recommendations with the speed or accuracy of computer-assisted analytics. And with AI, those recommendations become increasingly more powerful and relevant.

Microsoft’s Onboard platform is one place to start, or you could explore H20 for free and open source tools.

If the language you find in tools like these is overwhelming to you, that’s OK. You can partner with a firm like ours to help find your way to a solution that works for you. Contact us to start that conversation.

Wrapping Up

Artificial intelligence and AI-powered solutions offer many benefits to businesses of all sizes, including small businesses. We’ve just scratched the surface in today’s post, highlighting some of the major ways AI can help you succeed. Stay tuned for a future post where we dive into some of the specific available off-the-shelf or semi-customizable solutions that can empower you in the areas discussed here. Check out our overview of how AI Powered Workflows Enhancement Small Businesses.