How SMEs are learning to leverage AI opportunities

How SMEs are learning to leverage AI opportunities

The explosion in AI tools like ChatGPT this year presents exciting opportunities for SMEs, but there are also pitfalls to be aware of.

Mass-take-up generative AI tools are attracting user organisations of all sizes and could prove a rare example of transformative computing that’s accessible to businesses across the small/medium/large scale, rather than the big early-adopters having the benefits ages before everyone else.

Another disruptive factor is that with emergent solutions like OpenAI’s ChatGPT (and its rivals), SMEs will – in theory, at least – be enabled to have more direct control over how the technology is used, even if the overhead resource this requires could eat into short-term ROI gains.

As they master the new tools, however, and learn to leverage the potential of AI and Large Language Models (LLMs), observers see opportunities for SMEs to compete in ways that would otherwise be beyond their means.

A survey by market-watcher Techaisle indicates that AI uptake is likely to increase by 79% within small businesses, 63% in midmarket firms, and 53% in upper-midmarket firms. For 41% of SMEs polled, AI has evidently become “a priority”.

Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools driven by AI and LLMs are providing an opportunity for SMEs to take their initial steps into AI. Both small- and mid-market businesses expect to increase their use of ChatGPT in the next year – 17% of small businesses, 39% of mid-market firms, and 79% of upper-midmarket firms plan to use systems/tools/other products that embed ChatGPT, Techaisle reports.

Is 2023 an AI ‘evaluation year’ for SMEs?

The data indicates that SMEs are in no great rush to adopt ChatGPT and LLMs’ capabilities. “Small businesses have little to lose by treating 2023 as an evaluation year [in which to gain an] understanding of how they can create real advantages within their organisations,” adds Anurag Agrawal, Chief Global Analyst at Techaisle.

In terms of the use-case divide, midmarket firms want to apply these tools to customer experience, process automation, and risk reduction. They also see “automation of repetitive tasks”, along with IT automation and management, as “high-potential areas” for LLM-driven solutions, along with more specific applications in customer service, marketing and sales.

The technologies’ potential to fuel innovation and supercharge operations is already making waves across the business community, reports Fergal Reid, Senior Director of Machine Learning at Intercom: “We see AI and automation taking on the repetitive, rote work that human agents typically handle – but humans will always remain an important and necessary part of business operations. The future of customer support is automation-first, but not automation only.”

Chatbot deployment in scope

Techaisle survey data indicates that 18% of small businesses, 30% of mid-market firms, and 36% of upper-mid-market firms plan to invest in conversational AI/chatbots – online applications that mimic human conversation through text or voice interactions – to improve customer experience.

The facility to answer customer questions and resolve issues can free up an SME’s customer service agents to focus on more complex challenges, and further personalise customer experiences.

“It’s essential to have safeguards in place to avoid ‘hallucinations’ from AI, and to validate your data entry points,” adds Reid. (An AI ‘hallucination’ is a plausible response by an AI that is factually incorrect or fabricated).

SMEs will also be able to create chatbots of their own that learn from their own data – or use intermediary software to do so. Intercom’s Fin solution is an example, says Reid. “Fin is an AI-powered bot that’s trained on a company’s own help centre, so the information it ingests is fully controlled by the business.”

Experimenting and skilling up

They may be easier to use than conventional AI development platforms, but mass-market AI tools still require skills that it will take SMEs time and resources to acquire, if they don’t want to outsource to a third-party specialist to do the work.

Therefore, in order to realise enough ROI benefits to make the AI leap financially viable in the near future, ambitious SMEs require support and an open-minded approach.

“The fast-paced advancements in AI and LLM capabilities have unlocked enormous potential – so much so, that at this stage of development, it is underutilised by many businesses,” says Reid. “SMEs should experiment internally and monitor AI vendors and new entrants in their industry. Despite the challenge of keeping track of new features, investing in AI is crucial, because it rapidly unlocks significant value. This is one of the biggest technological changes for decades, and certainly shouldn’t be side-stepped.”