Five ways AI can help small businesses

SME owners and tech experts offer their insights on how artificial intelligence can improve the way you run your small business.

1. Making sense of data

As an SME owner you have access to a huge volume of data: from website user behaviour and sales figures to social media numbers and competitor performance info. AI can help you use this data to make better business decisions by filtering the valuable from the irrelevant and presenting it in easy-to-digest formats.

Sohaib Ahmed, founder of newly-launched business intelligence tool &facts, explains: “What we’ve found is although there’s an abundance of data, small businesses simply do not have the time, technical ability or resources to understand their market through it. Within five years of starting, 60% of businesses fail – and a lack of market understanding is one of the most common reasons.

“Our platform uses AI to provide relevant market analysis, utilising data visualisation and other tools to improve decision-making processes for SME owners who are overwhelmed by masses of data.”

Mattis Larsson, co-founder and chief technology officer of food waste app Karma, adds: “Handling large amounts of unstructured data is obviously something computers can do really well. AI-enriched technologies give SMEs the ability to make data-driven decisions and optimisations that were previously only attainable by bigger corporations.”

2. Intelligent marketing

Strong and accurately targeted marketing campaigns will be crucial to your company’s success and AI can play a valuable part.

“There are so many bad agencies out there who take money for no good output or delivery,” says Paul Sullivan, founder of London-based marketing firm Bias. “But AI is giving companies more power to market themselves effectively on limited budgets.

“The market is filling with sales and marketing tools that use AI extremely well to help predict the effectiveness of ads, content and outreach efforts. I’m extremely excited by the prospect of AI tools that go further than just predictive analytics and machine learning. The solutions are already getting smarter and smarter – that can only benefit UK SMEs.”

3. Automated customer service

Automation has long been replacing the easier but more time-consuming tasks that come with running a business – invoice processing, order confirmations and stock management, for example. But now, with AI developing so rapidly, it can even help some more complex aspects – such as customer service.

Voxpopme is a Birmingham-based tech company that uses chatbots – AI-powered messaging tools – to save time and money with its own customer service. “We’re about a year into our life with chatbots,” says VP of marketing Jenn Vogel. “When we started, we took a real leap of faith, removing 95% of the contact forms from our site and replacing them with ‘the bots’.”

Our chatbot has had more than 4,000 conversations and 20% of the people who made contact booked meetings with us without any human input

Jenn Vogel
VP of marketing at Voxpopme

Vogel admits there’s been a learning curve, but describes the overall impact as phenomenal. “In 12 months, our chatbot has had more than 4,000 conversations,” she says. “And 20% of the people who made contact booked meetings with us without any human input. Many more will have found the resources and help they need, too.”

Inspired by her own experiences at Voxpopme, Vogel offers business owners the following piece of advice. “Chatbots can provide plenty of time-saving benefits. But remember that you're connecting with real people. So be as human as possible in the messaging you choose – try not to use jargon or unnatural wording, for example.”

4. Improved HR processes

AI can complement real intelligence in the field of HR too, as Gartner content analyst Sonia Navarrete explains. “AI is mostly used [in HR] to help with administrative tasks such as background checks, CV screening, onboarding – and that can save a third of HR professionals’ time,” she says.

“As for more specific benefits, [AI] can improve employee experience, free up more time and budget, and provide more accurate information to enable decisive people management.”

Asked what advice she’d give to an SME looking to introduce AI to their HR function, Navarrete says: “Investing in AI is a big decision for a small business – so it’s important to choose the right business use to optimise, and also the right tool to help with that. Take your time to do the research into existing AI platforms. Checking user reviews is a good way to shortlist the best solutions.

“Start by analysing your business needs and priorities and identify the repetitive tasks that take a high amount of time from you or your employees. These tasks can be automated using the right AI tool. However, using an AI tool without a defined goal or at a very early stage of your business growth might not lead to the desired results.”

5. Supply chain efficiency

AI can help to identify and eliminate wasteful and unnecessary touchpoints throughout the supply chains that small businesses depend on, according to Robert Lockyer, CEO of luxury packaging supply firm Delta Global. “[With AI] the production line becomes more customer-focused; data helps us to address what’s happened in the past and flag up risks for the future,” he says.

“For our own customers, we’ve implemented a real-time reporting system that is trained to reveal patterns and trends depicted from human behaviour and interactions. It is also a cost-saving initiative that exploits synergies within the entire supply chain cycle. The better forecasting and stock control we’re achieving with AI reduces waste while improving the traceability of goods in the manufacturing and delivery process – everyone in the chain benefits.”

Final word: AI advice

Most of us are used to hiring people rather than robots, so you’d be forgiven for feeling a little daunted by the idea of embracing AI.

However, for those filled with apprehension by the idea, Sullivan offers this interesting take. “It might seem easier to just recruit someone than to start using the range of unfamiliar technologies mentioned here,” he says. “But can a single person do all of this well and hit the ground running? Probably not. With AI-enriched technology, it's more a case of finding your settings and sticking it on autopilot. Overcome that initial fear and AI could well help your business kick on.”

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