Are you a glass-half-full type? If so, then the words “artificial intelligence” probably conjure up visions of a future in which humans spend their days sipping cocktails by the pool while algorithms do all the hard work. If you’re the pessimistic sort, you’re probably already prepping for the robot apocalypse.
The reality is rather less dramatic, but every bit as exciting. As AI gains importance in our day-to-day lives (those Gmail smart replies? Pinterest’s ability to rustle up pictures of renovation projects that look uncannily like you’re hoping yours will?), its benefits from a business point of view are becoming increasingly apparent.
Whether you’re at the head of a booming multinational or just getting your eCommerce store off the ground, AI can automate key tasks, collect and analyse large amounts of data and help you make informed decisions. What this boils down to: better strategy and huge savings in both time and money.
Let’s take a closer look at how you can use AI to grow your business:
Bring AI into your marketing campaigns
The idea of one-to-one marketing has been knocking around for years, but too many brands are still alienating their clients with generic emails and ads that fail to capture their attention. Using artificial intelligence to gain a better understanding of your customers may feel contradictory, but it’s actually key to deducing their true needs and expectations.
In times gone by, recommendation engines would lean on customers’ recent acquisitions in order to suggest further purchases. This wasn’t particularly effective, and ultimately lead to consumers being followed around the internet by ads for irrelevant products bearing a close resemblance to their mother-in-law’s Christmas present.
AI makes this a thing of the past. Amazon was one of the first companies to leverage AI for marketing purposes and product recommendations, and its algorithms have gotten more and more sophisticated with time. The company now takes into account not only previous purchases, but also those of other customers alongside general searching and browsing behaviour among other factors.
AI draws on a wide variety of sources, including purchases and search history but throwing social media profiles, interactions with your brand and external factors such as location and even the weather into the mix. This enables you to create truly personalised marketing messages that offer customers the products and services they need when they need them.
AI-enhanced email services also help reduce the amount of unsolicited (and ultimately, unwanted) messages consumers receive and enable timely communications that notify consumers of deals and promotions on products that are truly tailored to their needs.
Take your customer service to the next level with chatbots
Over the past couple of years, you’ve no doubt noticed that increasing amounts of websites are using chatbots to greet customers as soon as they arrive on a homepage. Until relatively recently, chatbots were an interesting but functionally limited concept. Advances in AI and Natural Language Programming (NLP), however, now enable them to converse with your customers as fluidly as a human agent would.
What does this mean from a customer service perspective? The benefits for smaller businesses are obvious. For companies that don’t have the resources to employ a round-the-clock support team, chatbots are a low-cost and efficient alternative that can instantly respond to customer queries, provide 24/7 service and never, ever lose their temper. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines recently launched BB (or BlueBot), a Facebook Messenger app that helps customers book flights and keeps them updated with information such as gate changes and flight delays. AI-powered chatbots can take things even further, using machine learning to improve their efficiency over time, handle complex queries, engage with customers on an individual basis and provide valuable follow-up.
Chatbots don’t require extensive technological knowledge and can be integrated with the messaging platforms that your customers know and love, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger or Viber, which, according to recent research, now boast over 5 billion monthly active users. It goes without saying that it makes sense to reach out to your customers via the apps they’re already using on a day-to-day basis.
Another way to make your customer service chatbot as engaging as possible is to ensure it has a great personality – yes, that’s entirely possible! Start by giving it a name and developing a consistent tone of voice that’s in line with your brand – be it chatty, formal, emoji-filled or even academic. Cheapflights is another travel-oriented company that’s doing a great job from this point of view, with a fun and informative Facebook Messenger chatbot that helps customers find flights and hotels.
Let AI pick out the best leads
If you’ve been following closely, you’ll have understood that one thing machine learning-powered solutions are great at is collecting data from a variety of different sources. And not only that: they also interpret that data and use it to help you make informed decisions. That’s great news from a marketing perspective, but also from a sales one.
Even the most efficient salesperson in the world has to have the time to actually… sell. But in reality, sales teams most often have their time eaten up by the need to continually prospect and qualify leads, and are therefore unable to dedicate the necessary resources to engaging with existing, high-quality ones. This is where AI can help, by using data to analyse customers’ purchasing habits and identify exactly where prospects are in the pipeline. This enables sales teams to qualify leads more quickly and avoid spending too much time on candidates that are less ideal.
The truth is, some AI software solutions are better at interpreting data than humans. Even when the latter do have the time and resources to sift through huge datasets, they might miss important insights. No company, however big, will have an entire team on hand available to manually analyse their brand’s social media following and draw relevant conclusions from it. By leveraging AI to interpret billions of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter posts to create detailed buyer personas, the start-up Netra can do just that.
And yet again, chatbots can be of great help when it comes to qualifying leads. Not only can they carry out basic research into customer behaviour and use that to help qualify prospects, but they can also provide low-quality leads with any information they need and leave them with an overall positive brand experience.
Take the tedium out of accounting
Is tax season the most stressful time of year for you as a business owner? Rest assured that your accountant feels the time way. Manual data entry, justifying expenses and all-round basic bookkeeping are unrewarding and tedious tasks that take up time better spent on strategic development.
Happily, there are now plenty of AI-powered accounting solutions on the market that enable you to reduce staff input to a minimum, access data 24/7, make informed decisions based on real-time financial data and collaborate effectively with external accounting firms. What’s more, many are offered in the form of SaaS (Software as a Service) that require no initial investment, maintenance or hardware upgrades, unlike the costly solutions of yesteryear.
In a 2016 report, the consultancy firm Accenture noted that “automation, minibots, machine learning and adaptive intelligence are becoming part of the finance team at lightning speed,” and that what’s more: “30 to 50 percent of traditional shared services roles, including those in finance, will disappear over the next five years thanks to them”.
But what if accounting is your business? Reports such as the above, alongside start-up pitches such as « X does your accounting for you », some firms are not harboring the most positive feelings about the AI revolution. But there’s no need to worry about your clients leaving you for a software solution – on the contrary. Combining your experience and expertise with machine learning will enable you to automate thankless tasks and focus on high-value advisory services. AI software will also enable you to collaborate closely with your clients in real-time while retaining your brand identity.
As more and more tools are made available to small business, we’re likely to see a shift of focus from basic bookkeeping to to generating insights in which to ground short-term decisions.
Making AI work for you
According to research, businesses that have teams driven by data insights will take $1.2 trillion from those that don’t by 2020. By automating time-consuming everyday processes, handling complex queries and generally enabling your staff to focus on what they do best, AI can help your business, big or small, to move to the next level.
Getting started with AI- or machine-learning-powered solutions can be a big step, and some changes in company culture will be necessary, but the benefits are numerous – and with technology constantly evolving, only set to get bigger.