The pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital services by small businesses by years. In this shift, businesses have been using more digital tools to order and sell products, handle customer requests, automate data and workflow, and much more.

During the recent CO— Roadmap for Rebuilding event, small business experts spoke about the digital tools they have used to connect with more customers, complete more sales, automate tasks and lower back-end costs.

Jeanette Mulvey, editor-in-chief of CO—, led the discussion with small business owners and technology experts. The panelists included Jon Briccetti, CEO of Troy Web Consulting; Kyle Harper, AI strategy director of Dell Technologies; Steve Scutellaro, head of brand and marketing at Automat Kitchen; and Mimi Striplin, founder of The Tiny Tassel.

Here are seven major takeaways from the conversation.

Nail down the problem first

Briccetti notes that a common problem for businesses wanting to invest in new technologies like artificial intelligence is that they don’t fully know the problem they want to solve.

“You need to be clear about your goal,” Briccetti said. “You need to know what your goals are and really identify the problem you're trying to solve. That's the most important thing. Because sometimes we find out about this technology and we just get so excited about it. [But] we haven't taken the time to think about what problem [we are] trying to solve. And with that comes thinking about, ‘What's the scope?’ ‘What are we going to do now?’ and ‘What are we going to do later?’ You need to think about what doesn't have to be in the first version … and prioritize those things that you're trying to do.”

Integrating software is key to inventory management

Striplin said one of the biggest things that helped her business was better inventory management by integrating software platforms.

“Inventory management was one of our biggest struggles when we first opened the brick-and-mortar, as we were still selling predominantly online and through social media,” Striplin said. “We had to take a step back and say, ‘OK, what can we use or what can we do to make this more efficient?’ because we were overselling products, and that led to unhappy customers. And so, we use Shopify for in-person and online sales, and it is integrated with our sales through Instagram and Facebook. We no longer have to make sure nothing oversells, and it just freed up so much time for our team as well.”

We use our brand voice and make sure that that's consistent across all of our communication, whether it's through AI or automatic emails that customers are receiving.

Mimi Striplin, founder, The Tiny Tassel

A web app might be a better fit than a mobile app

Briccetti, who works on various web technologies projects for businesses, suggests that some businesses would be better off building web apps instead of mobile apps when trying to digitize.

“Phones today have all kinds of great features, but building an app for a mobile phone is more complicated,” Briccetti said. “You’re dealing with two types: Android and iOS, and there are strategies to addressing and supporting these very different platforms. Web applications can be much less expensive, and you can build something that's very mobile-friendly. The key is to make sure you are addressing the mobile needs of users.”

Select technology vendors carefully

Scutellaro said the restaurant he works for, Automat Kitchen, has a great technology stack that is very helpful for customers and the business. But it didn’t start that way.

“In all honesty, I think we struggled early on because we made the wrong vendor choice,” Scutellaro said. “We were looking for folks who could help us build both from a hardware and software standpoint, and obviously there are realities of budgets with any small business. We found ourselves in a spot where the wrong vendor choice early on really hurt both the development of the product and the timing. … Making sure you find the right fit, both in terms of that partner's size and abilities and what their sweet spot really is, is critical.”

Get customers back with automated reminders

Striplin said that her company uses tools that integrate with Shopify to help remind customers about items they were looking at previously but didn’t purchase, including Klaviyo for abandoned carts and Back In Stock Alerts for items that were not in stock.

“We also use features like ‘abandoned cart’ or ‘abandoned browsers’ to communicate with our customers who may have left something in their cart but didn't check out,” Striplin said. “Or we have our platform contact a customer via email if they have looked at the same product two or three times in a certain time span. We say, ‘Hey, we saw you checking out this pair of earrings, what do you think?’ and that usually draws them back in to remind them. … So it's really cool to use those automated features and have them running in the background.”

Examples of how small businesses will use AI

Harper suggests that small business owners might be wary of artificial intelligence because it’s marketed toward massive companies. Yet, they would be well served by adopting AI-infused software.

“We hear quite a bit in the news that artificial intelligence is about big data and big tools and big staffs, and solving these huge problems ... but the actuality is [the majority of the businesses helped by AI will be small businesses],” Harper said.

The four categories where Harper notes small businesses will be able to take advantage of artificial intelligence are:

  • Design of product: This is when the software will help inform how your product looks and feels and make suggestions on how to improve it for your customers.
  • Supply chain management: This is when software helps manage your supply chain and inventory needs.
  • Predictive analytics: This is where the software will use personalized customer data to predict your customers’ purchases.
  • Preventive maintenance: This is when software can tell you machinery or automated tools you need to be repaired or replaced before they are broken.

Try to make your automated messages human

Striplin noted that her company had done a lot of work to make sure the automated messages still sounded and felt human, and that had increased engagement.

“We use our brand voice and make sure that that's consistent across all of our communication, whether it's through AI or automatic emails that customers are receiving,” Striplin said. “People get these messages from us, and they don't realize that they're automated, so they're responding thinking that they're responding to a person. So then our team jumps in and responds to them.”

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Follow us on Instagram for more expert tips & business owners’ stories.