1. What you really need to know

Voice recognition for mobile banking, call centre customer support, online shopping behaviour analysis, credit card fraud prevention and language translation… if you have used any of these services or systems, you have already experienced AI (Artificial Intelligence) and its impact in changing business operations and their delivery of services to consumers.

According to research by the Economist’s Intelligence Unit, 90% of businesses surveyed expect AI to have a positive impact on growth in the next five years, with even more saying it is important in solving strategic challenges.

The same survey says that the race to use AI in business has already begun, with over a quarter of respondents already putting it into key processes. This is despite concerns over skills and security, although this is outweighed by optimism as new avenues for growth are needed during turbulent times.

The rapid development and deployment of AI is a reaction to the changing markets that businesses now find themselves within. They must reduce costs, improve their efficiency and deliver an ever-expanding number of services to their customers to remain profitable. AI enables many processes to be either completely automated, or vastly reduces the level of human intervention that is needed.

For even the smallest business, AI is within reach. The key to effectively using AI is to understand what it could deliver to your business, but also be aware of its limitations. AI is the new buzz phrase, but it’s important to consider what your business needs before investing.

From improving customer service to deep insights gained from AI data analysis, your business should consider what AI could offer to remain relevant in your market, fully supportive of your customers and profitable over the long term.

2. What is AI?

AI is used as an umbrella term to group a number of technologies together. The most well-known AI technology is machine learning. This is where systems can improve their performance if they are given more information. A good example is online credit card fraud prevention. Your bank’s AI system learns your spending habits and when a payment appears that doesn’t fit the profile the AI has, it alerts the bank to a possible fraud.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) is another practical AI system. Here, computers are taught to understand speech. When you call your bank or energy supplier, in the past you would have had to enter your account number manually and persist through long automated switchboards to find the help you need. Now, you can simply speak your answers. This is AI in action.

Automation is also a major part of AI. All businesses are looking for efficiencies in their processes to reduce costs. Removing humans from repetitive tasks is a major drive for AI in all businesses. AI ‘bots’ can help business run much more efficiently as they act at as a digital assistant. A recent example is the Sage AI chatbot that can help a business better manage its finances and tax.

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AI is also having a huge impact on marketing. The closer your business can tailor its marketing and advertising to precise groups or individuals, the more successful it will be. AI can assess and analyse massive quantities of data to understand what motivates your customers to buy. With this information in hand, business could better develop new services and products.

Paul Clarke, Chief Technology Officer at Ocado, said: “AI has to be the centre of everything we do now. I am sending that message to all of the technology teams in Ocado. Previously the message would have been ‘Collect all data and make sure everything is measurable.’ The new message is: ‘Collect the data and make sure everything is architected for AI from day one.’”

3. How can SMEs use AI today?

There are many options for your business to start using AI systems today including:

Developed by x.ai, Amy is a personal assistant bot that can schedule meetings for you. Amy can remove much of the hassle of setting up meetings and then managing the inevitable rescheduling that happens.

This smart to-do list could help you manage your calendar, events and meetings. The bot is intelligent enough to gather all the information you need based on what the meeting or event is about.

If your business has data that is held on different systems, Tamr can help you integrate your data together to reveal potential ways you could develop your business’s products or services.

Recorded Future
Your business could come under cyberattack at any minute. This AI automatically watches for potential threats to your company and its customers.

This adds a layer of AI to your contact centre or your customer service team. Using predictive automation, this AI could help your customer services improve its responses through better targeted information.

If your business already uses a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system, SalesforceIQ adds AI components that could enhance your CRM with deeper insights into customer behaviour.

Often, small businesses will use multiple AI systems or services together to create and/or improve the overall efficiency of their enterprises. In most cases, you can test the systems first-hand to see what impact they could have on your business and your own management skills.

4. What are the key benefits of using AI?

For SMEs, the main benefit of when using AI is improved efficiency and reduced costs. AI can be viewed in the same way as using data analysis applications, CRMs or automating back office processes. AI is different in that it can improve the services it delivers by learning.

Using AI could offer your business:

  • Improvements in day-to-day operations.
  • Targeted marketing with deeper insights into customer buying habits.
  • Robust security protection from cyberattack.
  • A level of automation that could improve systems performance.
  • Reduced costs via automation and efficiency gains.
  • Data analysis to reveal new potential markets for your business’s goods or services.
  • More efficient customer service that leads to greater brand loyalty.

Within a competitive marketplace, any cost reduction, new customer communications channel or improvement in customer service a business makes is welcome, but there is also a practical application. AI could help business find cost savings, make closer connections with customers, and help vastly improve how a business is managed. 

A fifth of Welsh small businesses use CRM systems to outsmart rivals with better customer management, saving time and money, and unlocking further business opportunities. 

5. How do you start to use AI in your business?

As with any changes you want to make to your business, ask yourself what your goals are for AI? This is vital so you can see whether the AI systems you have deployed are working.

Often, you can start to use an AI instantly. Many AIs are apps that you install on your mobile devices or online services that you can access with any device connected to the Internet.

Gluru is a good example of an AI you simply download from the app stores. Personal assistants like Amy, Niki.ai and Pana offer business owners the chance to radically improve their efficiency when running their companies.

Most small businesses however, will look for specific tasks or processes within their business to use AI with. The use of AI bots has been growing rapidly, as they are relatively easy to install and maintain.

There are many services that in effect allow you to build your own AI bot for specific purposes. Services such as Chatfuel, Converse and Zendesk are all designed to help businesses improve their customer services.

All these bot creation services enable you to set them up to look for specific patterns of data. Your business could create, for instance, a bot to look for the most frequently asked questions about your business’s services or products. This information is then fed back to your research and development teams or a bot could be used within your Facebook pages to better match goods or services to specific groups of followers.

he AI in this example could go much further and then automatically ask other relevant questions while it is interacting with your customer to gain even more insight into their buying habits, thoughts and feeling about your business, and what they would like to see improved – all without any human intervention.

6. What does the future hold for AI?

There is little doubt that businesses large and small will have to use more AI in the future to remain competitive. As the customer relationship deepens, human only customer services or sales teams won’t be able to understand and then act on the torrents of data they will be collecting. Here, AI comes into its own, as its natural environment is masses of data, which it can help your business make sense of.

Economist’s Intelligence Unit concluded: “If AI realises its business potential in the next 3-5 years, there is little question that it will lead to significant improvements in processes, as well as in the precision and reliability, and possibly the speed, of operational business decisions. AI is also more likely to enhance security and improve risk management than to weaken them, although some have concerns about AI’s potential misuse.”

Your business’ customers will also become more aware of and relaxed about using AI systems as they start using them in their daily lives. Systems that may already be familiar are mobile banking apps on smartphones, home automation systems such as Amazon’s Alexa, and smart assistants on phones and tablets such as Apple’s Siri.   Being comfortable with AI systems then enables your business to innovate using AI features like voice recognition that are already familiar.

It’s AI when used with customer relationship management that is likely to have the most profound impact on your business in the short term. Small businesses especially need to be agile. The masses of data they collect about their customers can be difficult to analyse, to find value and meaning. AI systems are likely to become as common as your accounting application.

Read how being digitally fit helped Hazelwood Carpentry future-proof their business against changing demands.

7. Your AI checklist

With AI services rapidly expanding, your business should carefully plan how it will use AI. Follow this checklist to ensure your business makes the most of its investment in AI:

1.    Plan your deployment

It is critical to have a clearly laid out plan for how your business wants to use AI. The investment you make needs all the due attention you would use when making any change to your business systems.

2.    Can you act on the AI’s recommendations?

If you plan to use an AI to look for patterns in customer data for instance, does your business have the additional processes to exploit that information when the AI reveals it?

3.    Consider the impact on your staff

In some cases, an AI can offer a level of automation that would lead to your business requiring fewer staff. What impact could this have on the morale of the remaining workforce? 

4.    Are your logistical systems able to cope?

Often, AI will be used within sales teams. If a rapid expansion of orders was to occur, could your business cope?

5.    When things go wrong

The wholesale automation of your customer services may be your ultimate goal, but when queries arise that your AI can’t handle, your business will need human staff to help.

6.    How will you build on your AI?

Your AI is a learning machine. Ask yourself how you want your use of AI to expand in the future.

To gain experience of how AI could be used in your business, systems such as Amy are a great place to start. You can see how an AI operates and what practical help they can be.

All businesses no matter their size will have to use some form of AI to ensure they remain efficient and profitable. Take your time to learn about AI and its potential before committing your business’s resources to these systems.