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Put AI to Work for Your Small Business in 2018

Sunday Dec 31st 2017 by Pedro Hernandez

New AI-enabled solutions for the workplace are available from Salesforce, Microsoft and Amazon.

Think you're priced out of AI-enabled business applications? Think again.

Although it may seem that software products with advanced artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities are out of the reach of small businesses with limited IT budgets, the truth is that AI is trickling into a growing number of affordable solutions. A compelling reason for adopting AI is the time it can save users, according to Salesforce's Ruthie Miller.

AI can automate the little, repetitive tasks that add up a to a major time sink. An AI-powered virtual assistant can help busy professionals tame their calendars, stick to impending deadlines and more. Online chatbots can answer questions and take care of simple customer service requests that would otherwise mean hours spent tethered to a phone.

Most importantly, AI can be turn rarely used data into a valuable resource.

"For example, you can adopt an AI solution that predicts buying habits for your product based on both life events and market-based factors," blogged Miller. "In turn, this gives your salespeople accurate information on prime prospects, plus plenty of ammunition to increase deal flow. And what makes such AI systems especially powerful is that they can learn, which allows them to adapt and continually improve."

In this scenario, AI helps salespeople focus their time and energy on qualified deals rather than chasing iffy prospects, she added.

Here's a look at some major IT vendors that are putting AI to work for small businesses.

Salesforce

In November, Salesforce launched Sales Cloud Lightning Essentials, a customer relationship management (CRM) offering tailored to the needs of small businesses.

Highlights include the company's interactive online learning environment called Trailhead, which guides users through the setup process, allowing them to get started in mere minutes. The mobile-friendly Salesforce app helps users make the sale at any time, anywhere and on practically any device.

But the star of the show is Einstein, Salesforce's AI.

"Sales Cloud Lightning Essentials is infused with Einstein, empowering small businesses to automate basic sales activities and work smarter. Einstein Activity Capture automatically keeps customer records up-to-date without any tedious data entry by connecting a user's email and calendar," stated Marie Rosecrans, senior vice president of SMB marketing at Salesforce, in a Nov. 7 announcement.

Microsoft

The Redmond, Wash., software giant has been infusing AI into practically the entirety of its software and services portfolio. Naturally, that includes Dynamics NAV.

Earlier this month, Microsoft released the latest version of its enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution for small and midsized businesses, Dynamics NAV 2018. In a Dec. 1 announcement, Microsoft corporate vice president James Phillips revealed that the upgraded software now uses "Microsoft Cognitive Services for image recognition of inventory Items and contacts. We've also added improvements to the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) capabilities with the Kofax Invoice Capture Service, for process improvement with digitized purchase invoices," all of which helps eliminate manual data entry for busy workers, he said.

Amazon

Despite their productivity-enhancing benefits, IT experts haven't been too keen on companies using consumer-grade virtual assistants like Alexa in business settings. Amazon rose to the challenge in November by announcing Alexa for Business.

"Alexa for Business not only brings Alexa into your workday to boost your productivity, but also provides tools and resources for organizations to set up and manage Alexa devices at scale, enable private skills and enroll users," wrote Tara Walker, technical evangelist at Amazon Web Services, in a blog post. With simple voice commands, Alexa can be sued to join remote meetings in a conference room, check calendars, set reminders, reorder office supplies and much more.

More information is available in this blog post.

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