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How small businesses can use AI to maximize efficiency and profits

By August 2, 2023No Comments

(This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)

Maybe you’ve already tried ChatGPT, the conversational artificial intelligence chatbot that is already helping people plan vacations, translate foreign languages and answer complicated math questions. But ChatGPT is just the start of the coming AI revolution. As Microsoft, Google, Apple, Facebook parent company Meta and other software companies ramp up their AI plans, many local IT consultants are preparing their small business clients for a tidal wave of added functionality that will soon have a dramatic impact on how they operate.

“AI is the next iteration of automation,” said Jim Smith, the CEO of Proper Sky, a managed IT services firm based in Abington. “Smart companies are going to look at entrenched, established service-based industries like bookkeeping, title search, real estate and automate that value with AI.”

Yes, there are plenty of concerns about privacy, accuracy and bias as well as the potentially terrifying impact of this technology’s ability to learn and get better. But AI is here, and people in the local IT community are advising their small business clients to get ready now for how it will impact their businesses.

One of the biggest — and earliest — impacts of AI is that it can act as an assistant that will help a business owner accomplish things faster.

“With just eight to 10 prompts [an instruction or discussion topic a user provides] in ChatGPT, I have precise, functioning code that runs better than anything I could have written,” said Smith. “We make a thousand user accounts a year. With the time I save, I can spend those hours with my clients talking strategy and risk — two things I don’t see AI doing for a very long time.”

Smith sees many ways his clients will be using AI as an assistant to improve their operations.

“AI won’t cut your grass, it won’t cook you a delicious meal and it certainly won’t build you a church, but it will eventually plan the landscaping schedule to avoid rain, order all your parts and supplies at exactly the right time and do all the schematic designs with mind blowing precision,” he said.

Michael Franzyshen, president of Ascendant Technologies, Inc. in Somerset N.J., sees automation having its biggest impact on customer service, with chatbots having conversations with customers and answering their questions while also performing tasks like automatically sending emails to update service reps.

“These are so many labor-intensive customer service tasks that often require one on one assistance with the customer,” he said. “An AI-based solution will allow more customers to be helped simultaneously and allow businesses to scale their customer service departments more efficiently.”

David Mulvey, president of Advanced Network Products, Inc. in Plymouth Meeting, is already using AI tools to step up his firm’s customer service.

“In the IT service industry AI chatbots are automating service ticketing triage, documenting customer request details, and connecting our customers to the right engineers within seconds,” he said. “These AI bots have gotten so smart that the the customer experience is just like having a human there.”

Marketing will likely change a lot, according to Michael J. Davey, the CEO of I.T. Services Group in Media. Already there are email marketing platforms leveraging AI to determine the best times to send messages and predict the likelihood of responses. But that’s just the start.

“You can use AI tools now available to create images and graphics from text,” he said. “And you can use software like ChatGPT and other tools to write articles to post on social media sites, create outlines for blogs and suggest better ways to write emails and product descriptions.”

Mulvey says that as AI continues to evolve it will undoubtedly personalize the customer experience.

“New tools will allow my firm to quickly gather what products or services a particular customer is already using and what the customer likes or dislikes,” he said. “It will allow us to target our communications, future recommendations and service delivery in a way that meets every customer’s unique wants and needs.”

Another big impact on businesses will be improved data security.

Davey predicts that new security tools will be better at looking for patterns of known virus activity and smarter about identifying fake emails or other “phishing” tactics that oftentimes dupes users into clicking on suspicious links or downloading malicious files. Future software will also be trained to look at content and files before being sent to outside parties so that a company’s internal information can be protected.

“We are starting to see accounting and reporting packages that small businesses use become AI enabled,” he said. “They’re getting better at analyzing financial data to look for patterns of fraud or other bookkeeping irregularities.”

AI will also soon be embedded in machinery, equipment and robots and this software will automatically help maintain their operations, alert for any maintenance issues and improve their efficiencies. It will be incorporated in our offices, vehicles and production facilities to minimize power usage and maximize safety.

“We will see enhanced robotics,” said Mulvey. “Several of our manufacturing clients are in the process of building AI-robot factories to handle repetitive and time-consuming tasks, which will significantly reduce payroll. These AI-robots are working in the dark, to cut back on monthly utility expenses.”

There are plenty of concerns about the risks of using technology that learns on its own. But that shouldn’t stop businesses — especially small business owners who are looking to increase profits through better productivity — from exploring and leveraging these tools and who view this new technology as something that will help humans be better.

“The best potential for small business will be for employees who use AI to do a better job and make their small and large companies more efficient, profitable and agile,” said Franzyshen. “We see AI as a tool requiring human expertise to fully utilize.”

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