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Why Small Business Should Be Paying Attention to Artificial Intelligence As customers become accustomed to AI-powered solutions, they'll expect the same from their local businesses.

By John Swanciger Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.


Artificial intelligence (AI) is changing the face of business. No longer a futuristic concept, its impact is real. From tech giants like Google, Apple and Amazon to user-centric behemoths like Uber and Starbucks, everyone seems to be using AI technology to transform the customer experience (CX). But, it's not just corporate giants that are deploying AI. Smaller organizations are following suit.

Across industries, small businesses are investigating how AI can help them drive down costs, better accommodate customers and remain competitive with their increasingly tech-driven peers. For small businesses unfamiliar with AI, the prospect of rolling it out can be daunting. But, by adopting a strategic approach, small businesses can get a head start on harnessing AI and reaping the benefits it offers.

Related: The Big Trends from Google I/O 2017

Applying AI: Learning from Starbucks

Starbucks is one notable example of an enterprise that's embracing artificial intelligence to optimize its CX. At the end of January, the company announced that it would offer voice ordering capabilities via Alexa, Amazon's cloud-based virtual assistant with a continuously expanding base of skills. Linking up with Amazon, the coffee giant created a new Alexa skill specifically geared toward ordering at Starbucks. The skill -- called Starbucks Reorder -- provides users with a voice-activated way to place their typical order ("Alexa, tell Starbucks to start my usual order.") or check their card balance.

Currently in the beta phase, Starbucks' evolving use of Alexa points to the experimental approach companies are willing to take when it comes to deploying AI. While big business use of AI is generating the most publicity, small businesses should also consider how they can leverage the technology to meet customer needs.

Related: 8 Companies Changing How Machine Learning Is Used

As customers become accustomed to AI-powered solutions like Starbucks' Alexa offering, they'll expect the same from their local businesses. Here are some proactive steps small organizations can take to lay the groundwork for business-applied AI:

Give AI a try in your personal life.

Before deciding if AI is appropriate for their companies, small business owners should put on their consumer hats and use the technology outside of work. Test out Amazon Alexa or Google Home to determine what you like and dislike about the devices, and how your own customers might use similar technology to interact with your business. Brainstorm ways you could potentially weave AI into your company and weigh the pros and cons of implementing emerging tech.

Lay out business-specific AI goals.

Small businesses shouldn't approach AI without a set plan -- it's crucial to prioritize specific applications for artificial intelligence technology. For instance, if you run a clothing store, perhaps you'll look into predictive analytics technology to reduce staffing inefficiencies. Alternately, if you own a restaurant, you may focus more on the potential of autonomous delivery vehicles. And if you're a company with complicated accounting, you might look to ease the process with AI. By setting specific and highly focused goals, small businesses can more easily lay out a game plan to fulfill them.

Related: How to Learn Anything in the Age of AI

Get your IT capabilities up to speed.

As a November 2016 study on the mounting adoption of AI pointed out, difficulty tracking and making sense of data is one of the key roadblocks enterprises face when deploying artificial intelligence. Small businesses cannot benefit from AI if they lack the IT infrastructure to support it. Therefore, smaller organizations should begin their journey toward AI by adopting a modernized approach to IT -- one that moves away from legacy on-premises solutions and toward cloud-powered resources that will be able to scale up as artificial intelligence technology is implemented.

Track the growth of AI.

Actively following the evolution of AI now will pay dividends in the long run. Even if your small business isn't currently ready to deploy emerging AI tools, it's important to keep a close eye on the market. That way, you'll see when technologies emerge that may benefit your business -- and you'll be able to track the AI moves your competitors are making so you don't fall behind.

As the examples set by companies like Starbucks illustrate, businesses are pursuing AI to optimize operations and improve the customer experience. By actively making an effort to learn about and embrace artificial intelligence, small businesses can prepare for a future powered by AI solutions.

John Swanciger

CEO of Manta

John Swanciger is a seasoned technology executive with vast experience building highly-scalable platforms and marketplaces. As CEO, Swanciger leads Manta in strengthening its current offerings while expanding products and services for Manta’s growing customer base of small-business owners.

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