An occasion like Small Business Month would seem, at least at first, to be something where it’s up to others to cheer on Canada’s fast-growing firms and the entrepreneurs who develop them. To do otherwise might seem like bragging, or like throwing a party with yourself as the guest of honour.
There’s more than one way to define “celebrate,” however, and it doesn’t have to be an exercise in navel-gazing. It starts with recognizing that, despite all the challenges, starting and running a small business involves the kind of opportunities that simply weren’t available to entrepreneurs in the past. Michael Denham, CEO of Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), summed it up nicely in a video launched to kick off Small Business Month 2017:
We are at a turning point. New digital technologies and an evolving talent marketplace are reshaping the reality of Canadian entrepreneurs. Those who spot the next wave of disruption and take advantage of it will be tomorrow’s leaders.
Probably the most talked-about of those technologies, at least this year, has been the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities in tools such as Salesforce Einstein.
Of course, those on the front lines know there are still many difficult challenges in running a small business. A study from the Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses (CFIB) showed there are plenty of worries keeping entrepreneurs up at night. This includes everything from figuring out where their next customer will come from to building their brand to providing top-notch service.
Why not transcend some of those worries and celebrate Small Business Month by exploring what AI could mean to make some challenges a lot easier? Here are a few ways to get the party started:
According to the BDC, only 51% of new small businesses last more than five years. More than half, or 55%, have fewer than four employees. Could these two things be related?
When you think about the time it takes to identify a potential opportunity, make contact, formulate a pitch, follow up and eventually close a deal, it’s a wonder small businesses have time for anything else. In many cases, there are real question marks in terms of whether those prospects are worthy of being targeted, or whether they will convert into an actual buyer.
AI can take on a lot of the legwork required to validate the right sales leads and even streamline the process of engaging with them. If you have one or two people to assist with sales, celebrate them as part of Small Business Month by giving them tools to automate some of the responses they need to give certain customers, or to coach them on which opportunities will pan out based on what you’ve seen in other accounts to date.
Some small businesses used to leave marketing until after they had a critical base of existing customers. Then they’d take out a print ad in their local newspaper. In a world dominated by e-commerce and social media channels, however, that’s not really viable anymore.
Can the average small business owner really be expected to keep up, though? Customers can now be reached through so many different channels it’s difficult to know which will build basic awareness and which will lead more directly to a lead for the sales team. Prospects might start by reading an e-mail newsletter, for instance, but could require additional stops in their journey that include a social media post, a webinar or even an SMS notification before they make a purchasing decision.
Rather than wring your hands over these difficulties, celebrate the many different choices available to your customers by using AI to listen to them more effectively, including the tone and sentiment they respond to on social media. Then, let tools like Einstein serve as your data-driven marketing expert to sketch out the customer journey that will prove most popular, or what’s most appropriate for a certain profile of customer. AI can also be used to evaluate the results of your marketing efforts and suggest ways to better optimize what you’re doing to build a preferred brand.
The small businesses that thrive already know they need to answer questions and resolve complaints as fast as possible. It’s just that, amid all their other responsibilities, small business teams are by definition in reactive mode most of the time. In other words, something goes wrong, then they hear about it and then they have to deal with it -- and in the customer’s mind, “yesterday” would be the ideal timeline.
Imagine a scenario where, instead, someone were able to look internally at the kinds of issues you typically deal with, weave in some expertise from information from the outside world and give you a head’s up on where your next service calls will be coming from? AI can actually do this today, and as with your most trusted team members, it will grow along with your company to get better and better at its job. So good, in fact, that some organizations are already using AI to provide the most preferred approach to dealing with troubleshooting questions -- smarter self-service.
Put all three of these things together, and celebrating Small Business Month 2017 is really a way to say “thanks” to customers by making it easier to do business with you, easier to learn about you and easier to get help with using your products and services when they need it.
In a few years, AI may become so prevalent in organizations of every size that it no longer seems new or disruptive, but today it’s a competitive differentiator. It could mean this year’s Small Business Month marks the beginning of a new wave of innovation and financial success for growing firms across the country. In the meantime, congratulations to all the entrepreneurs who show that starting your own company -- and succeeding -- is still a dream worth pursuing.