From Siri to Alexa, customers are becoming accustomed to AI-powered solutions and soon they will expect the same for their local businesses. Sure, an AI rollout can be daunting, but by adopting a strategic approach and adding smart software, small businesses will not only be able to differentiate themselves from competitors, but compete with the industry giants as well.
While many overcomplicate the technology, AI’s behaviors are predictable – it’s merely an advanced system that is trained, not told. AI mimics the human brain in the way that it learns. It starts with no information, and after being given thousands of pieces of information, is able to understand and make predictions about data it has never seen before.
AI will become a threat to small businesses if owners believe it won’t impact them, or isn’t already impacting them. The fact is, AI has the potential to drastically help companies of all sizes work smarter and more efficiently than ever before.
Before acting on an AI rollout, here are the top four questions small businesses should ask themselves:
What is it you are looking to achieve with AI?
AI can provide great value for sales, marketing, finance, HR, customer service, and more. Hone in on what exactly you are hoping to achieve with the use of AI – where do you need to increase productivity?
By setting highly focused goals, you will be able to develop a plan that prioritizes specific applications for AI technology. This way, small businesses can slowly adapt and familiarize themselves with the software, that will, overtime, drastically enhance the bottom line.
The most immediate benefit of AI is that it will provide immense efficiency. There will be less time entering data and more time getting valuable insight to augment decision making. There’s a mass amount of data waiting to be analyzed and AI will guide businesses on how to act.
What data has already been put into a system of record?
You’ll never hear the words “too much data” and “AI” used in the same sentence. AI systems become more accurate and effective as the volume of data increases. The big industry players have been accumulating business intel, reporting, and have already moved on to predictive analytics.
The first step in your AI project is to systematize your business. With the widespread adoption of cloud based solutions (SAAS) and the rapid reduction in the cost of storage and processing, the first step is to start instrumenting all elements of your business. Your website, your marketing activities, your sales – including the business that you “win” and “lose.”
Unlike huge, multi-national companies that are able to capture and process peta-bytes of data, small businesses have had access to significantly less data. This is changing with the adoption of cloud-based products and services and the availability of open data sets from governments and other providers. The goal for small business owners is to have the appropriate systems and infrastructure needed to go and analyze data and extract even more business value.
What is your ability to explore your business data and understand what’s going on objectively?
If you’re looking at the raw data it’s easy to “torture the data” to get the answer you want to be there – don’t fall victim to this habit.
Your goal is to generate several hypotheses from the data. Examine outliers and the associations between data elements. Be careful not to draw conclusions too early though, as outliers could be caused by “bad data” that needs to be cleaned up, and the relationships may not be strong enough to make any definitive conclusions. We often allow our personal biases and expectations get in the way of looking at data. The numbers don’t lie, but if we look at them expecting certain results, we may end up manipulating the information to meet our expectations. In order to take full advantage of AI, we need to be able to trust the numbers.
You don’t need to use expensive tools; use the reports and dashboards that are built into the tools you already have and approach the problem with an inquisitive mind. Look for the unexpected and when you detect something that’s interesting, create one or more hypothesis to explain what you’re seeing, and then set about to prove or disprove it.
Is your technology provider on the path to add these capabilities into their product to further automate and provide more meaningful insights?
AI will not provide any benefit if small businesses lack the IT infrastructure to support it. Start by upgrading your approach to IT – move toward a cloud-based resource that can support AI once implemented. Data is a prerequisite to introducing AI into a system, and a paper system is useless when it comes to incorporating AI.
Make sure your goals are aligned with the direction your software is going. If it doesn’t seem as though your software provider is working toward the same future as you, it might be time to consider another option. It’s important to ensure your provider is taking steps to remain relevant in the future of technology.
If you’re just getting started on the business analytics journey, begin by using the reports and dashboards that your systems have today. Become familiar with the digital assistants that are already on your smartphone; explore what they are already able to do and stay current with how these systems are evolving.
By making an effort to understand and embrace AI, small businesses are optimizing operations, improving customer-service, and growing their bottom line. Imagine where your company would be if you didn’t embrace the uncertainty of the internet or didn’t go mobile in the age of the smartphone. Artificial intelligence is the newest technology adding efficiency and intellect to small business – don’t be late to adapt; be better, faster, smarter operators with the use of AI.
First published in Forbes