How to Use AI to Improve Your Small Business

“The amount of work we can automate with AI is vastly larger than before. As leaders, it is incumbent on all of us to make sure we are building a world in which every individual has an opportunity to thrive.” (Andrew Ng, Co-founder and lead of Google Brain)

Artificial Intelligence has come a long way very fast, and now every second app is claiming to be able to change your life using this ground-breaking technology. Many of these apps are simple software solutions designed to automate routine tasks, sometimes while mimicking a level of human interaction – as in chatbots, and the aim is to use them to free up human focus for more important, strategic or engaging activities, which cannot be mimicked. The truth is that many of these apps are only able to offer services at a fraction of the skill of a human new to the job, or still require significant human knowledge or input to get the most use out of them.

There are, however, some apps out there where this assistance is more than just a little valuable, particularly for a new company that may have no staff at all in a specific role, or where an entrepreneur may simply not have the time to do everything themselves. Here then, is a list of ways you can use current AI to improve your small business.

Customer service

Probably the most common use for Chatbots is the spreading of content marketing on social media. Many people are familiar with these fake profiles popping up to link to various services or leave comments defending various points of view. While at one time there may have been a benefit to such marketing this is rapidly reaching its climax as people become more savvy to the existence of these tools and online bots now seem to outnumber actual people online.

A far more interesting use has been in customer service where bots are being deployed as a first line of assistance to clear the bulk of customer questions before they take up the time of real members of staff.  Sold as being capable of mimicking a human conversation, business owners should, nonetheless, never fool themselves that modern chatbots are coming across as real staff members. People are, however, becoming increasingly comfortable with having their questions answered by an automated service, and chatbots in this scenario can help free up time by becoming an interactive FAQ. The benefit to a small business owner is that their time is no longer cluttered with routine enquiries and response times to customers are now rapidly sped up, lowering frustration and improving real world relationships. They can also be set to send you notifications to alert you to serious cases, or issues that only humans can resolve.

Among the best AI chatbot programs are Netomi, WP-Chatbot, Microsoft Bot Framework and of course (the one getting all the media attention!) ChatGPT.

Cybersecurity

Cybersecurity is an increasingly important and regulated aspect of modern business. Doing business these days requires that companies have top of the line security with no flaws in order that they meet the legal requirements for protecting customer information and data. In the past, they would just ignore it and hope for the best, but fortunately this no longer has to be the case.

The days of constantly needing to upgrade and deploy security software, learning new skills and manually backing up servers to prevent malware, ransomware and phishing attacks could now be now a thing of the past. AI solutions save business owners time and give them peace of mind by handling all of that, ensuring companies are safer than they have ever been.

But it doesn’t stop there. In a world where hackers are able to bypass common virus protection programs with little effort, and the average ransomware pay out sits at around R2-million, AI security is also capable of analysing networks for weaknesses and vulnerabilities, and spotting abnormalities in user behaviour. These AI security systems are also capable of using their database of previous malware versions to predict and prevent future attacks based on patterns and commonalities.

These security solutions are also able to monitor staff behaviour on the company network, and over time learn normal patterns of behaviour. By identifying the usual patterns, it can quickly recognise if one of your staff members has an account that has been compromised and shut it down before it can be used to cause any damage. Just be careful of privacy concerns before implementing any such solution in the workplace.

All of this helps keep the small business up to date with regulations, and customers safe, while preventing costly downtime and giving owners peace-of-mind.

While there are literally dozens of useful and important security apps some of the best AI Cybersecurity solutions include IBM Security, Targeted Attack Analytics by Symantec and Tessian.

E-Commerce

Online shopping is only getting more embedded in our society and small businesses often have a long way to go to keep up with the Amazons of the world when it comes to their level of operations. Luckily, AI can now be used to automate or assist with a variety of tasks such as product recommendations (Clarifai), listing optimisation (Klevu) and inventory management (Inflow Inventory) while also analysing customer behaviour and personalising the shopping experience (Amazon Personalize). All of this can save the business owner time, and lead to a richer, more satisfying experience for customers, which in turn leads to improved sales and better client retention.

Financial Management

One of the most arduous, but also necessary, tasks for small business owners is the management of all financial affairs. Luckily, financial management software has been around for a while and the very best solutions are all incorporating AI to automate bookkeeping tasks, reconcile bank transactions and generate reports.  While they are by no means a replacement for an accountant who can help with advice, compiling complete financials and assisting with tax savings, both Xero and Quickbooks, for example, have AI apps that can help ease the burden of your day-to-day, time-intensive bookkeeping tasks.

There are even apps that help small businesses stay up to date with regulatory requirements. Compliance.ai for instance will monitor and analyse regulatory changes, automate compliance tasks, and generate reports reducing penalties and other non-compliance risks – even in South Africa.

Take specific advice from your accountant!

Don’t implement any AI solution without first running it past your accountant, particularly when it comes to the financial management aspect. There is still no substitute for specific (human) advice tailored to address your particular needs.

Disclaimer: The information provided herein should not be used or relied on as professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your professional adviser for specific and detailed advice.

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