Are you intimidated by the words “artificial intelligence”? Maybe you’re thinking of Internet algorithms spying on you — or robot overlords from movies?  However, if you’re a smaller business, AI can be good news and make you a master, not a slave.

Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning and Deep Learning have become mainstream buzzwords. They appear in media stories about self-driving cars, advanced medical diagnosis and military targeting. You’ll also come across stories about companies or organisations using Internet algorithms to bombard you with adverts or attempt to influence your politics.

If you’re a small business, AI can seem like a world apart. However, this technology can be simple to understand, practical to use and make a massive difference to your company every day.

Although it makes the headlines regularly, AI isn’t ‘new’. It’s been around since the 1950s when a bunch of researchers starting using simple computers to solve problems and learn how to win at draughts (or ‘checkers’ as Americans like to call it).

It’s the availability of vast quantities of data, storage and computational power — alongside plenty of smart ideas and investment — that’s propelled AI onto the big stage today.

However, AI is not as complicated as it might seem. It’s not just for Google, Amazon and Netflix. Smaller companies of less than 30 people and with modest revenues can take advantage — without needing a data scientist on board.

So how could AI help? Well, here are three examples:

Predictive Analytics: This can be useful in sales and marketing. AI can look at the profiles of your customers and analyse their behaviours over time. It may predict which product an existing customer is likely to want next, so you can come in with an attractive upsell offer. AI might also spot the tell-tale signs that a client is about to leave, so your account team can be more attentive.

Robotic Process Automation: Within any business, there are likely to be routine, repeatable and mind-numbing tasks — such as processing orders or re-keying invoices. With AI, many of these operational processes can be automated and streamlined. You just set some rules and integrate your new tools with your existing systems, saving hours for your staff.

Cognitive Interaction: Web chatbots have come a long way. The bad ones we’ve all encountered tend to speak in generic terms and think along the lines of a simple decision tree. The moment the caller goes off the script, they get sent around in a frustrating loop. However, advanced AI can personalise the experience, calling up account details, while also reading the emotion of the customer. For example, if the customer is starting type ‘angry’ words, the chatbot can prompt a member of your human team to join the conversation and save the day.

What it is — and isn’t

At this point, it’s important to stress that AI is about augmenting what your staff do — and freeing up their time for better things — not replacing them. Your goal is to solve business issues with the right solutions. That requires business acumen as the starting point.

Think about the core business challenge, not technology.

For example, in the marketing world, social media is a channel. I always recommend that my clients have a content strategy that engages with the target audience, not a ‘social media strategy’. The tail shouldn’t wag the dog!

Similarly, you shouldn’t have a ‘data strategy’ or an ‘AI strategy’. AI is a tool and data is the fuel to make it work — but the starting point should always be business.

So how do you want to use AI?

Where’s the pain in your business today, and where’s the opportunity? Perhaps, you want to reduce your time to serve each client, you’d like customers to have a better experience, or there’s a new product in the pipeline, but you’re not sure which features are the ones to push? Identify a business issue.

Next, talk to someone who can help you to spot pockets of data across your business and figure out ways to bring this together, so you can use it to deliver real-time insights. Most likely, this will highlight the specific obstacles that need fixing first or identify patterns that you didn’t realise existed.

Then, find someone who understands business and AI. You don’t need an army of data scientists or an expensive consultancy. You don’t need to sink £40k into a bells-and-whistles app that takes two years to produce and misses the mark completely.

Rather than taking a ‘big bang’ approach, split your challenge into bite-sized chunks. Use AI to solve little bottlenecks first or to glean specific insights that inform your decision-making.

You might discover that the software you need exists already. If not, then think creatively. For example, you could team up with a local university or college and work collaboratively, providing some modest financial incentives and prizes. Smart minds like a challenge and may relish the opportunity to solve a real-life business headache.

This way, you’ll solve the business issue, break the ice with AI, have new tools that sharpen your competitive edge.