How AI Helps Small Businesses Edge Out Larger Competitors

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Mention artificial intelligence and many people envision a dystopian future like something out of Blade Runner or I, Robot, with an impersonal society run by giant, faceless corporations. The reality is much different, as AI is behind many of the most personal services today, like voice assistants (Alexa, Siri) and predictive entertainment platforms (Netflix, Spotify). And it’s not just for large enterprise companies: Thanks to more affordable AI options, small businesses are beginning to embrace it.

In fact, while only 8 percent of SMBs currently use AI, research shows an additional 32 percent intend to implement it (which amounts to a potential growth rate of 310 percent).

It may seem a bit shocking that so many small businesses would want to jump on board the AI train. But AI has become the great equalizer, helping SMBs keep up with large enterprises on a much smaller scale. After all, no one understands better than small businesses how important it is to provide a unique customer experience. Many already have the luxury of dealing with customers one-on-one, so they know what’s necessary to make a relationship more personal. And AI allows them to do that in spades.

Experiment to Find the Best Uses for AI

Don’t get me wrong: AI does come with a learning curve. My advice is to start small and to wade in strategically. You’ve got to feel your way around the software to see how it can best help you meet your goals.

For a small sales team, that might mean using AI to help identify and qualify sales leads with the highest value. From a customer service perspective, you could benefit from using AI to automate responses to the most frequently asked questions. In marketing, we use AI to test messages and segment our email lists.

In short, AI helps you use your resources more efficiently and effectively. This enables you to interact with online customers in real time—something 66 percent of people now expect of brands. Even if the interaction is automated, you’re not treating that customer as a number (the kiss of death for any business).

Xtreme Lashes is a great example of a business that uses AI well. The cosmetics company uses Sales Cloud Einstein and its Einstein Lead Scoring feature to find patterns among current customers. This helps identify and qualify other potential leads, and sales reps can follow up with the people most likely to convert. Customer service teams, on the other hand, can use AI to gain insights into customer perceptions, which allows the team to devote more time and attention to the customers most in need of care.

When you use AI, you’re able to personalize services, devote the necessary attention to qualified leads, and plan your marketing efforts to speak to people on a deeper level. You can offer consumers what they want, when and how they want it. It lets you be responsive to individual needs.

While you can certainly experiment to determine how to best use AI to improve customer experiences, there are a few proven ways that provide the most value and help small businesses compete with their larger counterparts. Here are the top three:

1. Targeted Marketing Messages

Oftentimes, a small business relies heavily on email marketing, blasting a message or promotion to everyone on its email list. With AI, you can make sure you send the right offers to the right customers—and at the right times, no less. You’re no longer left blanketing every prospect and potentially alienating a portion of your base. Emails become more strategic with AI, sent only to people who are likeliest to convert at that time.

2. Lead Scoring

Looking at a prospect list can leave small business owners wondering where to begin. Sure, “from the top” may seem like the most logical answer, but AI can help focus your efforts on prime prospects: those most likely to close. Depending on the app or system, algorithms use a combination of behavioral data, demographics, and social info to evaluate and score leads. This reduces the time necessary to qualify leads and shortens the sales cycle considerably.

3. Personalization

Sixty-two percent of consumers expect personalized offers from brands. That expectation often branches out into other interactions, particularly customer service. Let’s say your support team regularly handles more complex customer issues. This obviously requires human interaction, but AI can aid your team by suggesting responses from a knowledge base or by highlighting past conversations with that customer, both of which for a more seamless and personalized customer experience.

Think of it this way: AI helps customers help themselves without their ever knowing it. You’re still providing the personal experience consumers now expect, just with an assistant of sorts. Without AI, you’re often left applying the same service to every customer—not necessarily the most effective or efficient way to drive growth.

It may be “artificial,” but AI technology makes everything more personal. And the benefits are real.

As senior vice president of Essentials and SMB Marketing at Salesforce.com, Marie Rosecrans empowers small and midsize businesses with the resources they need to grow.

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