Want to Get Started with AI? This Expert Has 5 Recommendations

Thinking about bringing AI into your small business? Consider these expert recommendations first

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BY Joe Galvin - 01 Feb 2019

how to start with ai

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in your company's future. No matter what industry you work in, AI will soon shape how you run your business, serve your customers and stay competitive in the marketplace.

New data from Vistage, in partnership with Salesforce, reinforces this point. Our survey of 1,467 CEOs from small and midsize businesses found that AI is already influencing the decision-making of business leaders. The findings included:

  • Investing in technology is a priority for small and midsize businesses. Nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of respondents said they plan to invest in new business software in the next 12 months.
  • CEOs expect big things from AI this year. When asked which advanced technology will impact their business the most in the next 12 months, respondents listed both connected devices and the Internet of Things (59.8 percent) and AI (29.5 percent).
  • AI is already shaping business practices. About 13.6 percent of respondents said they are currently using AI to enhance different aspects of their business, including business operations (51 percent), customer engagement (45.5 percent), talent management/hiring (20.2 percent) and financial reporting (16.2 percent).

At the Salesforce Dreamforce '18 conference, I moderated a panel that took a closer look at how AI is transforming small and midsize businesses today. One of the featured panelists, Admir Hadziabulic, director of support services at HCSS, described how his company is exploring new opportunities in AI. He offered these five recommendations for business leaders interested in AI:

1. Before you buy AI, know what you want to accomplish with it.

Hadziabulic advises companies to identify small, simple goals that AI could potentially help them achieve. "Think about the scenarios you might want to predict, such as how likely it is that a customer will renew a service contract or respond to an email," he says.

For example, one of his company's future goals is to use AI to better predict questions or requests from its 3,000 customers. "We [can't do that] yet, but we are looking at the overall behavior of customers -- such as whether they are engaging with us -- to identify the likelihood of renewal," Hadziabulic explains.

2. Identify the key questions that you want AI to answer.

These questions should be direct and straightforward. For instance, HCSS is currently focused on the question: How can we use data to provide better service to our customers? "We want to be leaders and innovators for our customers," Hadziabulic explains. "We want to show them the latest in technology, business practices,and services, and AI is the way to do it."

3. Leverage AI to upgrade old equipment.

If your company owns old equipment, it's worth investigating whether there are AI-powered sensors that can upgrade the functionality of that equipment. This is an emerging area that many companies -- like HCSS -- are still in the early stages of researching. However, it has powerful implications for the future.

"Currently, we are basing preventative maintenance triggers on data related to equipment usage, such as meter readings," says Hadziabulic. "In the future, we'd like to be able to predict equipment events by utilizing all of our data across all customers and equipment manufacturers."

4. Use AI to enhance, not replace, your customer service team.

AI is still in its early stages, and its capabilities are limited, particularly when it comes to customer service. As a result, companies shouldn't try to replace their customer service teams with AI-powered tools like chatbots.

Instead, they might follow the lead of HCSS, which is exploring whether it can implement chatbots that can perform simple tasks for customers, such as resetting passwords or answering basic questions. In the meantime, HCSS's customer service team continues to provide the high-quality service it's known for, including answering every call in three rings or less.

5. Build a strong foundation with BI before moving to AI.

Ideally, you should hone your capabilities in Business Intelligence (BI) before moving on to AI. "BI gave us the confidence that our data was correct," says Hadziabulic. "AI allows us to go to the masses and apply insight to be more productive." As part of this process, he recommends evaluating how you manage your company's data governance. "Think about who can create accounts or create fields," he says. "It's important to think about how your data works together."

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