Back when I first started working professionally, the way you might appear like a larger company was to use partner companies that provided reception services to screen your calls and take messages, secretarial services for letters and correspondence and banking services to handle at least some of your financials, collections and billing, But if anyone came to your office, store or place of business, they’d immediately figure out your size and scale. If they’d thought you were bigger, that perception was thoroughly destroyed.
With the advent of the web and more people doing business remotely, if smaller companies invest in their digital presence and they can largely interact remotely, they can still appear substantially larger. As they evolved from using people to systems that often-provided similar poor experiences to larger firms, it made me wonder what problem the small company was trying to fix given the use of those technologies often alienated customers who had previously gravitated to the smaller firm for better and more focused customer service.
Now we have the advent of generative AI tools like ChatGPT, and we are gaining the capability to effectively staff up customer interaction with technology while enhancing the customer experience, but only if it’s used intelligently. Given the newness of this technology, there are few that yet know how to use it well in large companies, let alone small businesses.
Let’s talk about the technology changes and how critical it is to begin to understand how generative AI tools can be used to help bridge the capabilities of a small firm and better enable their ability to co-exist and compete with larger companies.
What generally helps a small firm compete with a larger entity is personalized customer service. If you buy on-line from a big company and have a problem, you are typically relegated to working through on-line help resources. If you get a technician, they are likely to be based outside of the U.S. which degrades their ability to fully understand the problem you are presenting.
A local business is more familiar with the kinds of problems a local region is having. They give you a real person to talk to and can be more responsive. However, here in Central Oregon, local businesses are almost famous for having voicemail inboxes that are full and won’t take messages, who don’t return calls and are relatively unresponsive when it comes to problems. This is because small businesses here and in other places are having severe staffing problems and are inadvertently prioritizing sales over service as a result.
Unlike older technologies like traditional chatbots and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technologies, generative AI can present like a person. If it is properly trained, it can take efficient and nuanced messages, it never gets angry or frustrated and it can help with many of the common problems a customer has and will more intelligently escalate the issue if it finds it is unable to help.
Tests of early systems from last decade even had guys attempting to ask out the AI they were interfacing with. But the AI must be trained and that training can be very time consuming. However, once trained, it can be applied to other AIs in minutes which means as we progress through this decade, there will be an increasing pool of generative AI solutions that have already been trained on businesses like yours and, for a premium, will be able to be implemented with relatively low disruption or training overhead.
But you still need to understand the technology, its limitations and the depth of the training. Otherwise, you are likely to pay for a tool that is ill suited to your business.
Picking the Right Tool
One of the very important practices of any business, large or small, is to form or participate in organizations focused on that business and take the time to go to events to both see what is out there and, more important, meet peers who are struggling or have struggled with similar issues so you don’t have to constantly reinvent the wheel.
Often, we think we don’t have time for this, but we are undergoing a period of massive technological change. If you don’t have a good idea of what new tools are out there to help your business, you will undoubtedly be left in the dust by companies that do take the time to learn about these tools and implement them timely.
But realize the key here is to learn about the nature and variety of tools in a particular class before investing in one of them. Otherwise, you are likely to find, as even large companies do, that your lack of research has led to an expensive mistake. Go into the process after you have identified the key problems you are having, what others have done to address those problems and whether buying a product or subscribing to a service will best fit your needs by studying both approaches.
Time is also very important. Most of the initial tools currently being created in the generative AI space, aren’t cooked yet, but that is changing incredibly quickly as they are spun up and put into service. So just because you don’t see one that works for you this year, monitoring some of the early deployments will allow you to better choose when a tool reaches a point when it is useful and will inform you of the problems others have had using it so you can avoid them.
Generative AI promised to transform a lot of businesses that we never thought would ever be automated. Fast food, for example, where the cost of AI exceeded the cost of minimum wage employees has pivoted aggressively to automation because they can’t get enough people to operate the stores. Generative AI is rapidly ramping up to increases sales reach and successful close rates at scale, to better be able to address support issues remotely and automatically deploy people (and eventually robots) when needed and it is going into both healthcare and the legal profession like a hot knife through butter. The latter are two areas where AI was thought to be years away from penetrating.
The world is changing rapidly and we’ve had several events like this which often cause mass failure of firms that don’t adapt to the changes. Many of us think this AI revolution will eclipse every technology revolution that has come before, which makes staying up-to-date on this one through your industry associations, peers and just by being well read on the topic far more critical than ever before.
Change is coming at a nearly unbelievable pace, which provides an opportunity to ride the wave or be buried by it. I hope you take the former path.