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The AI Advantage: Empowering Small Businesses for the Future

It’s hard to avoid the ‘AI’ message these days, it’s an advertisers dream product. Talk to almost anyone working in the tech world and they’re furiously trying to integrate AI into their products or services in some way. Outside of the tech world it’s a little more reserved, we may hear a lot about AI but most of it seems to be either about writing our children’s homework for them (it can), or how we’re all on the fast track to Skynet and cybernetic Arnold Schwarzenegger look-a-likes (we hope not). Setting aside the frivolous and the fantastic, what can AI do for you today?

Well, before we dive into what AI does, it might be useful to look at what AI ‘is’…

Artificial Intelligence refers to the development of computer systems to perform tasks that would typically require human intelligence. At its simplest AI is basically a very large set of instructions (algorithms) that enable computers to interpret large amounts of data, and then make decisions or perform tasks without explicit instructions for each step.

AI actually encompasses a range of technologies including machine learning (computers learning from data and making predictions based on patterns), deep learning (a type of machine learning that uses artificial neural networks and tries to mimic the human brain), natural language processing (teaching computers to understand and interpret text or speech), and computer vision (enabling machines to see and understand visual information). Often rolled into all of this is the field of robotics where mechanical engineering and electronics allow all that fancy programming to interact with the real world.

In short summary, the goal of AI is to create systems that mimic how we fleshbots do things, understanding natural language, recognising visual input, and making informed decisions with all the relevant information they possess or can gather.  

So, if you’re not truly scared of what AI might become (or even if you are but you’ve got a few minutes to spare) let’s look at some of the areas in which AI can be useful to small business now or in the near future.

Automation and Efficiency – Because of its ability to learn and adapt to information it hasn’t seen before, AI-driven automation can be used to streamline repetitive tasks such as data entry. This could be an AI ‘reading’ your supplier invoices and loading them into your accounts system, adapting almost instantly to different invoice formats, templates, and information, and flagging the occasional document it doesn’t understand for human review. Taken a step further the system would not just input your invoices, but highlight when something is out of the ordinary, such as a change in bank details or an abnormal payment amount.

Data Analysis and Decision Making – AI is all about big data. An AI enabled reporting tool could quickly extract meaningful insights and trends from a wide variety of sources, and then present that information to a small business owner just like a qualified business analyst might. Your AI enabled dashboard could help you understand and manage inventory control, sales forecasting, customer segmentation, resource allocation, and more.

AI Virtual Assistants (Chatbots) – The chatbot is perhaps where most of us have already encountered AI, sometimes without even knowing it.  The chatbot can analyse customer feedback across multiple channels such as social media and quickly improve their responses and effectiveness. Forget about writing complicated FAQ’s for your website, or trying to guess at what customers may search for, customers simply ask their questions in a natural way and are given the most appropriate answer, from a link to a product manual to a scheduled meeting or phone call.

Sales & Marketing – AI can use information about how customers interact and then tailor your products and services to suit, guiding them to the right products faster and improving customer satisfaction. Or perhaps AI could look at market supply and demand factors to help with pricing and cost management, perhaps by recognising that there’s a drought in Brazil that will drive up the price of coffee before your non-AI competitors do.

Cyber Security – This is a definite hot button for those of us in the finance world. Having an adaptive AI looking out for potential red flags in communications or network traffic and monitoring for security breaches could be a boon. Everything from fast learning text and email spam filters, to identifying out of the ordinary requests for data across your network.

Language Tools – It used to be that to sell into markets with a different language you needed to translate almost everything you do beforehand. Now AI powered translators can deal with just about anything, from a restaurant menu to a complicated set of assembly instructions. This might allow small players to compete on the global stage in ways that they never thought possible. 

Phew! You’ve made it this far. Perhaps you’re even more concerned than ever about the threats posed by AI, or you’re excited about all the opportunities it presents and you just want to know ‘Where do I get it?’. Well, you really don’t have to look very far to find AI being integrated into many of the software tools you’re already using (or could be if you wanted to). Here’s just a few examples:

Square for Restaurants – The popular payment processing platform offers AI-enabled tools that help analyse customer order history, identify popular menu items, suggest side order or add-ons, and provide insights into data targeted at streamlining small restaurant operations.

Shopify Kit – Kit is a virtual marketing assistant tied to the popular Shopify platform. Kit can coordinate social media marketing campaigns, send personalised EDM’s, and provide analytics that help small retailers to optimise their marketing and reduce their cost of sale.

Grammarly – If you’ve watched anything on YouTube you’ve probably seen a Grammarly ad. The AI-powered writing assistant provides real-time grammar, spelling, and writing style suggestions to help make written communications clearer and more concise.

ChatGPT – No article on AI would be complete without mentioning ChatGPT. Amongst many other things, the AI powered chatbot can be integrated into websites or customer support systems which could improve response times and free up human resources for more complex tasks.

It’s clear that no matter where we turn, the AI genie is coming out of the bottle at an ever-increasing rate, and all of us will in some way or another be interacting with AI enabled tools in our day-to-day lives from now on, whether we’re asking Siri where to eat, or ordering a new T-shirt for dad.

But for those that think AI is just a passing fad, I call to mind the words of Paul Krugman from 1998 where he wrote “By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine. Now to be fair to Paul, his Nobel Prize was for economics, and he never claimed to be an expert in technology, but you get the point, AI’s here to stay. 

Phil Chaplin the Chief Executive Officer of the CFI Finance Group, a specialist finance company servicing the franchise, accommodation, and fitness sectors as well as small businesses more broadly across Australia and New Zealand. Phil has over 20 years’ experience in providing finance to businesses across Australia and New Zealand and has managed finance companies in the private and banking sectors, he is a former chair of the Equipment Finance division of AFIA.