Everyone’s got a smartphone. What you need is a smart business. Bots, AI and Automation

Remember when the iPhone was introduced ten years ago? Over oohs and ahhs, Apple founder Steve Jobs promised us it would revolutionize the business world—and it has. Now it feels like a new technology comes out every day that promises to help companies improve efficiency, but how do you know it’s the right fit—and whether or not it’s worth the time, effort and monetary investment?

Savvy SMBs, it seems, are willing to take the risk. According to a 2017 G2Crowd survey, 77 percent of SMBs are investing in growth, listing software as the number one investment back into their businesses. In fact, SMBs are putting more money towards technology than they put towards marketing or additional sales headcount. The bottom line? Technology has truly become the great equalizer. More and more SMBs are using it to offset their resource constraints and banking on it for growth.

But still, making the decision to jump on board the “Tech Train” is one thing; knowing where to start is quite another. Here are four steps to smarten up your small business with technology.

1) Start out with: Cloud technology

Small businesses often rely on email and spreadsheets to run their businesses. In fact, the 2015 SMB Routes to Market Study found that 85 percent of SMBs still use Excel or email for sales and contact management. While these tools serve an important purpose, using them to keep track of data can lead to information silos that become outdated quickly.

Cloud software is the simplest way to rid yourself of inefficiencies and upgrade your technology game. Cloud-based CRM, for example, creates a single source of truth for your team, provides visibility into sales activities and stores data that can then be used to provide unique customer experiences. A great example of this is a company we’ve worked with called DUFL, an app for business travelers. The company uses cloud technology to manage customer interactions, analyze pipeline, identify upsell/cross-sell opportunities and build dashboards and reports. By using a cloud-based CRM, their lean team of 25 employees is able to sustain 10 percent month-over-month growth while maintaining a retention rate over 99 percent. Pretty amazing!

Takeaway: The benefits of cloud technology have been touted for years—it’s smart, efficient and accessible from anywhere. This one is an easy sell for your small business.

2) Next try: Automation software

Automation is an easy way for smaller teams to increase efficiency. After all, if you can save time on repetitive tasks, you’ll free up your team to focus on bigger things.

Think about the everyday life a salesperson. They answer emails, follow up on leads, build reports and chase down approvals. While necessary, let’s face it—these tasks can be a huge time suck. They limit the time reps could otherwise spend interacting with customers and actually selling products or services. A CRM system with automation capabilities will take care of administrative tasks so reps can focus on activities that will increase revenue for their businesses—like building strong customer relationships and closing more deals.

Takeaway: Small businesses live and breath the do-more-with-less philosophy, and automation is a proven answer. Look at your business and identify which areas could benefit from workflows. Do you send new client emails? Look into automating them with marketing software. Drowning in customer service inquiries? Try helpdesk software that efficiently routes requests to service reps.

3) Take it up a notch with: Chatbots

Chatbots, which pop-up automatically on some websites in the form of a chat window, can be a quick and easy way for customers to get their questions answered. They’re especially helpful for sales and customer service. At times, it’s hard to determine if an auto-chat is a person or a bot—which is exactly the experience companies want to deliver. Chatbots handle initial interactions, then transition to an actual person when an engagement needs to be upleveled.

Facebook recently introduced chatbots on Facebook Messenger, creating a useful way for customers to interact with brands. But small businesses, too, can use chatbots to engage their customers 1:1. Chatbots interact with customers and streamline responses to commonly asked questions, freeing up a team to concentrate on other areas. Businesses of any size can benefit from bots—from Google’s Allo messaging app to news chatbots like Quartz. You can even build your own.

Takeaway: Evaluate whether or not your company has a need for an automated service like this to help you run faster. If bots might solve some serious challenges for you, evaluate platforms to find one that has the features you need within your budget.

4) And for the grand finale try: Artificial intelligence

We use AI in our everyday lives without even thinking about it—Uber and Lyft use AI to predict traffic patterns; Starbucks uses AI to let you order your favorite coffee via Amazon’s Alexa; Facebook uses AI to suggest friends to tag in photos; even Gmail uses AI to filter spam away from your inbox.

Indeed, AI is so ubiquitous that we often don't even recognize when it’s powering a service. The business world, too, can reap those benefits, and there are plenty of ways for small businesses to use AI to gain customer insights, discover patterns in their businesses and get recommendations on next best actions to take. However, according to research from Forrester, only 12 percent of businesses today are using AI.

There is a massive opportunity for small businesses to become early adopters of AI, get ahead of the competition and win over more customers. By integrating AI across their organizations, small businesses are taking a big step toward building smarter businesses, differentiating themselves from their peers and competing with larger companies.

Takeaway: Interested in AI? Start out by trying a few free services. For example, if you’re constantly on the go, try Gmail’s Smart Reply feature. Like what you see? Other apps can tabulate business receipts, then auto-populate an expense report; and intelligent assistants can even help you glean insights from data or map out your work day.

Brains and brawn for your small business

It’s not easy for small businesses to keep up with their larger competitors, but technology has proven to be the great equalizer. Now that smartphones have gives us a taste of how new software and devices can improve efficiency, collaboration and mobility, it’s time to get smart about the rest of your technology. Just don’t let the wave pass you by. Because that wouldn’t be intelligent at all.

Author 

As senior vice president of SMB marketing at Salesforce, Marie Rosecrans focuses on empowering small and medium businesses with the tools and resources they need to grow. Before joining Salesforce in 2008, she held positions in customer support, professional services, product marketing, and program management at Oracle, Peoplesoft, Evolve, and Primavera. Marie lives in the San Francisco Bay area and enjoys hiking and traveling with her husband, teen, and tween.