A woman sits in a black leather booth at a table and types on a laptop. The woman has an afro and wears a navy blue sleeveless blouse covered with red polka dots and a necklace with small gold coins hanging from it.
AI and machine learning can take on repetitive and time-consuming tasks, freeing up time for you and your employees to address specialized tasks and focus on growing the business. — Getty Images/Tim Robberts

Artificial intelligence has gone mainstream in the last few years, making its way into countless business applications. Yet, only 10% of small businesses with zero to 24 employees "know how to use AI for their work-related tasks," and "67% say they know little to nothing about AI in general," according to a Microsoft survey. So what is AI, and how can AI technologies benefit small businesses?

AI-enabled features power your cybersecurity, marketing, and hiring software. Almost nine out of 10 self-named AI experts in Microsoft's survey see AI as a valuable asset or game changer for businesses. Learn what artificial intelligence involves and how your organization can use it to improve operations and button lines.

AI basics for small businesses

In its simplest form, artificial intelligence refers to technologies that can process information or problem-solve. It includes sub-fields like machine learning (ML), which allow AI tools to sort data and learn from previous datasets. Today's AI — artificial narrow intelligence (ANI) — doesn't think for itself. It relies on human training to learn how to process "if so, do this; if not, do that" calculations.

Deep learning, another subset of AI, has been called "scalable machine learning" because it reduces some of the human intervention required to process data. We see a form of deep learning in the generative AI technology used in ChatGPT. These models ingest raw data to generate new outputs.

Other terms that you may have heard that fall under the AI umbrella include:

  • Machine or computer vision: It allows computers to process visual data. Consider business applications like fleet management software, which collects and analyzes images, or manufacturing solutions that scan barcodes and products to ensure product safety.
  • Natural language processing (NLP): This AI technology is one of the oldest. It lets computer programs process human language and powers business software features like sentiment analysis and text translation.
  • AI automation: By itself, automation isn't intelligent. But when combined with AI technologies like robotics or ML, it can accomplish repetitive actions or learn and respond to inputs automatically. Examples include AI-enabled chatbots and business process automation (BPA) features, like automatic user permissions.
  • Self-driving vehicles: Autonomous trucks and cars leverage many AI technologies (deep learning, computer vision, and image recognition) to assess and respond to the environment. Most vehicles also use AI tools for speech and voice recognition.
  • Robotics: When equipped with AI, robots can perform tasks automatically, like those used in factory assembly lines. Others rely on algorithms and sensors to process data and make decisions.

Self-aware AI — artificial super intelligence (ASI) and artificial general intelligence (AGI) — isn't fully developed and used yet. It's a form of AI that could theoretically outperform the human brain.

[Read more: How Artificial Intelligence (AI) Is Changing How Marketers Sell Everything From Food to Fashion]

AI and ML make business software smarter and quicker

The technology's speed and versatility fit perfectly into many applications, from RingCentral's AI-enabled video assistant to AI marketing automation tools. In short, AI enhances any software used in your business today. If you use cloud-based tools, AI powers one or more features in your customer relationship management (CRM), email marketing, or accounting platforms.

The most common use cases desired by small business owners include automating repetitive tasks and analyzing customer data and trends. Order tracking and customer service software offer AI features that increase business efficiency while improving client experiences. It's a win-win for small companies.

Business owners can use artificial intelligence without specialized skills. Yet, small companies surveyed by Constant Contact reported concerns about learning curves, data security, and costs. Microsoft's survey also revealed that over half of small business owners worry about financing AI technologies. In addition, 41% need help figuring out how to prioritize where to begin, and 41% express unease about the training or skills on the best ways to use AI.

In its simplest form, artificial intelligence refers to technologies that can process information or problem-solve.

Key challenges that artificial intelligence can solve

Microsoft reported that almost half of small business owners feel "too overwhelmed managing the day-to-day aspects of their business to have the energy or means to ensure their business is reaching its full potential." If you lack the time and energy to do your job, you're 3.5 times more likely to have a hard time thinking strategically or innovating, according to Microsoft's 2023 Work Trend Index report.

Small business owners reported the following as barriers to success:

  • Communicating with customers.
  • Managing accounting and budgets.
  • Handling administrative tasks, like scheduling and data entry.
  • Attracting new customers.
  • Hiring and retaining employees.
  • Marketing to their target audience.
  • Converting leads to sales.

Additionally, 43% of surveyed business owners told Microsoft "they don't have the financial means to prioritize data security." Instead of taking action, entrepreneurs "admit to rolling the dice, hoping to avoid a breach rather than investing enough to provide the protection their business needs."

Artificial intelligence can reduce or eliminate pain points in all of these areas. Yet, 46% of business owners surveyed by Constant Contact said they "have only a beginner's understanding about the benefits of these technologies."

[Read more: 4 Trend-Driven Ways Brands Are Tapping Personalization for Growth]

Benefits small businesses realize after deploying AI-powered tools

There's no shortage of ways your business can benefit from artificial intelligence. At a high level, it optimizes business operations, allowing for more efficient processes and productivity improvements. AI also provides the data required for better decision-making. Small business owners can (finally) access enterprise-level insights to plan for labor, inventory, and financial resources.

Based on Constant Contact's research, small business owners realized these benefits after implementing AI solutions:

  • Over 90% said AI made their company more successful by reducing manual mistakes, helping them grow faster, and giving them more time in their week.
  • One-third of respondents believe they save over 40 minutes weekly on marketing tasks.
  • 28% achieved a financial benefit, estimating at least $5,000 in savings over the next year.

Examples of AI software features

Vendors are rushing to deploy AI-powered features in software products to keep up with competitors. This competition means many of your favorite systems may offer new tools based on AI or ML. For instance, in 2022, the graphic design tool Canva launched a text-to-image feature that turns your words into unique images.

Other examples of AI in business apps include:

  • Business phone systems: Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services like Nextiva, Dialpad, and RingCentral have AI features that can assess caller sentiment, transcribe calls, and summarize video meetings.
  • Finance applications: QuickBooks offers a cash flow projection feature, whereas Xero uses AI to categorize transactions. You'll find AI tools in payroll, tax, and forecasting software.
  • Marketing platforms: Most CRMs, email marketing, and advertising software use generative AI, automation, and ML. HubSpot has bot builders, and FreshworksFreddy AI is your sales assistant in Freshsales CRM.
  • Chatbots: Tools like Intercom, Zendesk Support Suite, and Drift offer conversational AI bots. You can embed these on your website or online store to improve customer experiences and reduce calls, emails, and texts to your customer service team.
  • Cybersecurity software: AI identifies abnormal behavior and vulnerabilities, protecting your network from attacks. Most cybersecurity systems use AI technologies, including CrowdStrike, ThreatCloud AI, and Darktrace.

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.

CO—is committed to helping you start, run and grow your small business. Learn more about the benefits of small business membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, here.

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