Woman working on laptop with digital images representing artificial intelligence floating around her.
Chatbots utilize artificial intelligence to provide 24/7 customer service, ensuring that customers can have basic questions answered even outside of business hours. — metamorworks/Getty Images

Business is more digital than ever, and small- and medium-sized businesses are finding new ways to optimize their operations with artificial intelligence (AI) tools.

“Artificial intelligence is the future,” said Rick Stanbridge, chief information officer of Marco’s Pizza. “It will become a mainstream element of enterprise-level and cloud technology platforms along with machine learning. The companies that will succeed will be the ones that are able to balance the value of AI with the value of 'human' resources, connections and interactions.”

Using AI, businesses can manage and improve products, automate services and be proactive with customer data.

Here’s what small businesses need to know about leveraging artificial intelligence and machine learning.

What is AI?

Artificial intelligence is a machine’s capacity to mimic human cognition. While software cannot actually think, it can be programmed to solve problems in ways that involve work similar to perception, reasoning and learning. AI is not an exact replica of a human’s capabilities, but it can be used to interpret language, perform tasks and make predictions.

[Read more: What Is Machine Learning?]

Improving customer service

For an affordable way to save on employee costs while maximizing availability to customers, businesses can use chatbots. These AI-powered software or plug-ins can exist on a business’s website or app 24/7, allowing unlimited opportunity for customer engagement. Chatbots are set up using existing resources (like FAQs) and scripted responses to deliver the most appropriate response to a human user’s query. The more chatbots are used (and given feedback by customers), the better and more efficiently they’ll perform.

Depending on business needs, chatbots are capable of performing many tasks, from troubleshooting issues to starting conversations with potential customers. If a customer’s needs are too complex, however, the chatbot can recommend and arrange human interaction.

There are other opportunities for businesses to leverage AI for better customer service, too. For instance, Stanbridge noted that restaurants are using AI to streamline the payment process, enhance the customer delivery experience and improve efficiencies with kitchen automation.

“We’re utilizing AI and machine learning to project more accurate delivery times … with the goal of improving guest satisfaction and the overall customer experience,” he explained. “We utilize an algorithm based on machine learning that considers key data points — load time, travel time, oven speed, number of drivers, weather and traffic — to determine how long it will take for the customer’s order to be prepared and delivered.”

The companies that will succeed will be the ones that are able to balance the value of AI with the value of 'human' resources, connections and interactions.

Rick Stanbridge, chief information officer of Marco’s Pizza

Hiring the best candidates

AI tools can greatly reduce the time HR employees spend on screening resumes, allowing more focused time for candidates who closely match job qualifications or company needs.

While a benefit of AI software is its unbiased collection of names, schools and addresses, how information is used depends on what businesses provide. If certain populations or credentials remain underrepresented in a company, data about past successful hires may not be enough to help AI learn all the best connections between candidates and company goals. AI performs best with more feedback on its outcomes, so it’s important to give it room to improve.

AI isn’t limited to candidate screening; it can be used during the interview process, too, automating communication to applicants, collecting information from references and analyzing performance tasks.

[Read more: How to Hire People Who Are Good at Adapting]

Boosting cybersecurity

An increase in digital information — from customers and businesses — necessitates increased digital security. Cybersecurity AI works by reviewing behavior patterns on a business’s software, apps and stored information. Through interpreting what employees and customers do with digital tools and how they do it, AI can recognize things that are relevant and acceptable — links, email messages, information inputs and time ranges for tasks. If something is outside of typical patterns (i.e., an employee clicks an unfamiliar link in an email), AI reacts to quickly remedy or remove the threat.

It’s important to know malicious programs are made using their own AI-guided programs, so investing in robust cybersecurity is a worthwhile way to ensure business longevity and customer trust.

Building better marketing campaigns and customer relationships

AI can help businesses make informed decisions about what their customers really want. For example, if a business uses customer relationship management (CRM) software with AI, they’ll have an even more convenient organization for mass communication. AI CRM can “hear” customers in a way that a human can’t, collecting and analyzing information from different channels (e.g., email newsletters and social media).

Kelsey Stuart, CEO of Bloomin’ Blinds, noted that the company is leveraging AI to better track leads and see them through to completion so we can truly understand our customers, where they’re coming from and the direct financial result from certain marketing efforts.

“The AI not only knows the costs and effectiveness of getting customers to the front door, but now it's learning which marketing efforts produce the most revenue in our business,” said Stuart. “The end result is more leads for less money.”

By following the guidance of the AI, businesses can better tune in to customer response patterns and develop messages that will resonate with their target audience, thereby enhancing the overall customer experience.

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.

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