By Lauren Maffeo

In the Washington, DC, enclave where I live, the owners of my local coffee shop likely aren’t thinking of adopting AI. I don’t blame them: It’s tough to see how AI can help baristas sell more bags of beans or make the perfect flat white.

After all, AI applies advanced analysis and logic-based techniques including machine learning to interpret events, support and automate decisions, and to take actions. Why would a local shop replace people – its most valuable asset – with machines that mimic them?

But software which incorporates AI can help coffee shop owners when it’s time for other tasks, like accounting, taxes, and employee management. It can help them order inventory, check shipments, and monitor waste.

When AI does these time-consuming but essential tasks, it gives small and midsize business (SMB) owners more time to focus on tasks that they can’t outsource to machines. Used efficiently, that time can give owners the nudge they need to sail past competitors.

Larger enterprises can buy entire AI platforms or develop what they need from scratch. SMBs don’t have the luxury to do that. Instead, they’ll gain access to AI through the business software they buy.

But there’s a trick: They’ll need to “interview” each software tool as if it’s a potential new employee. They will need to ask each vendor, “Which tasks can your tool achieve to support my business? Will it work effectively with my other software and employees?”

SMB leaders should consider business software which includes AI as another team member. Before “hiring” it, they should explore that product’s roadmap. Ask about its experience. Try to understand how it learns, addresses, and solves work-related challenges.

Conducting AI Interviews

Right now, the process for choosing business software is quite different from interviewing new hires.

Before buying software, you must build business use cases, make a list of essential features, and evaluate each product against your criteria. It is very much a point-in-time evaluation.

In the future, I think we will expect more of software. As AI gets integrated into more cloud software products, users will gain stronger understanding of how they can use it to solve business problems. In turn, software shoppers will assess each tool’s ability to solve such problems.

Businesses will consider AI for what it has always done best: Repetitive, rules-based tasks. They will use it for the time-suck stuff, like answering routine customer service questions that come in online and over the phone.

If SMB leaders still think AI is just “nice to have”, they are out of touch with what consumers want: 65% of U.S. millennials want to use chatbots, and Gartner predicts that by 2019, three times more businesses will use chatbots than used them in 2017. This shows a sizable gap between consumer needs and SMB investments.

Smaller businesses may think this new technology is a money pit thatched over with jargon and abstract concepts, like the differences between, “AI” and “machine learning.” Sure, it all sounds like a lot of additional work. But the truth is that most of us already use AI each day. If you own an Alexa, use Google Maps, or speak to Siri on your iPhone, you use AI by default.

And AI isn’t limited to consumer devices. SMBs are likely to find their competition is already using it.

According to Capterra research, 68 percent of SMBs say they are using, or plan to use, AI-driven conversational user interface technology (aka chatbots) within the next one to two years. 42 percent of them believe the technology is critical to their businesses.

Is Your Software Experienced? Is it Over-Qualified?

Currently, the business software industry doesn’t sell itself correctly. They present their products in opaque ways that SMB leaders don’t have time to understand.

The good news is that the business software industry has some time to adapt. The bad news is that they probably won’t — unless software buyers push them to do so.

So, the next time you shop for business software, don’t accept non-answers from your potential AI employee. You deserve analysis that explain how each product will solve your business  goals. You need to ask software vendors specific questions such as:

  • Can you provide an example of how your software has identified [X] emerging business problem and suggested possible solutions?
  • Can you describe how your software would respond to [a specific ] unanticipated business situation?
  • How will your software recognize when we need to change [X] business process, and how will it address this needed change?

Right now, most coverage of AI drives a spotlight on what tech’s biggest names are building. Automakers are developing AI to make cars drive themselves. Amazon is creating an algorithm to help them make deliveries by drone. Google’s AI can tell when a hospital patient is going to die.

It might seem like every enterprise is in the mix when it comes to AI – and like SMBs are being left behind. But it’s not pie-in-the-sky for an SMB to consider AI as well. No matter which industry one works in, businesses of all sizes benefit from learning how AI works. In a world where confusion about AI abounds, such knowledge is a strategic asset.

Lauren Maffeo is the Small Business Research Lead, Capterra.

Artificial Intelligence stock photo by metamorworks/Shutterstock