How Small to Medium Businesses Can Take Advantage of AI

business-intelligence

Artificial intelligence isn’t science fiction anymore. It’s an enterprise reality, and there are several market-ready ways for small to medium businesses to get started.

There’s a common misperception that advanced technologies like artificial intelligence are only an option for huge, multinational companies.

Owners of small to medium businesses (SMBs) have to compete with those companies, but often feel AI is too expensive to invest in at their level.

In reality, though, there are solutions on the market that put AI within reach for every budget.

What Holds SMBs Back

61% of American SMBs think artificial intelligence is something only large companies should do. They think their business isn’t ready for the technology, or that it can’t offer them enough to justify the expense.

Most concerns fall into one of three categories:

Budget

Industry articles about high profile AI projects usually list six figure costs and talk about budget overruns and delays.

That can be off-putting to risk-averse SMBs, who don’t have the depth of working capital necessary to absorb a large technology project failure. A loss that might give a multinational company a bad quarter would threaten an SMB’s future.

Tying up working capital in an AI investment is also riskier for SMBs. They need solutions that reach ROI quickly and are affordable in the interim.

Business Value

It’s hard for some to recognize the business value of AI. SMBs have to make every investment count; they don’t want to waste their limited operating budgets on a passing fad.

Those who do recognize the potential regard AI as overkill at the SMB level.

Complexity

From the outside- even from the inside sometimes- AI looks unmanageably complicated. SMBs don’t have the time to train their teams on complex data science tools.

Sometimes it’s not even clear what tools to choose or where to start experimenting with AI.

Leveling the Playing Field

Hesitations aside, artificial intelligence has incredible transformative potential for SMBs. When resources are limited, it makes every cent and labor hour count.

Data driven insights help identify issues before they have a major negative impact and spot opportunities early enough to take action. As the company grows AI lays the foundation for smooth operation at scale.

In other words, AI lets SMBs operate with the same level of agility and situational awareness as their larger competitors.

Right-sized AI Tools

It doesn’t take a multimillion-dollar investment to reap the rewards of AI. There are plenty of enterprise tools on the market that integrate artificial intelligence.

SMBs can start with these off-the-shelf solutions and build on their successes.

The leap from understanding AI’s potential to actually using it in a business context is a surprisingly short one.

Here are the easiest ways for small to medium businesses to begin taking advantage of artificial intelligence.

Boost internal efficiency with Intelligent Assistants.

Using intelligent assistants is a low-risk first step to AI adoption. It’s highly likely that SMBs already have access to some IAs even if they don’t recognize them as such.

Siri, Cortana, Amazon Echo, and Google Assistant are all intelligent assistants.

To get the most use out of the assistant, try integrating more of its features. Every IA is different, but their strengths usually include:

  • Maintaining unified calendars and scheduling programs
  • Efficient planning (for trips, meetings, deliveries, and other business activities)
  • Voice-activated data searches

Better customer insights and marketing with Smart CRM Systems.

Intelligent CRM tools (like Smartforce’s Einstein AI) are a game-changer for SMBs. Now, companies can pull data from multiple sources to create a cohesive picture of their customer base.

Sales data, lead lists, social media, email interactions, and more are all combined to help find and keep the most valuable customers.

These applications guide marketing automation, too. Smart CRM systems provide the insight necessary for targeted email and text marketing.

When messages are sent to those most likely to be interested, open rates and conversions go up. It’s a low-effort way to drive sales.

Provide faster, more reliable customer service with Chatbots.

Chatbots are available all day, every day. They give customers a reliable point of contact without adding labor and free team members to handle unusual customer issues (or even move on to other high-value tasks).

Chatbots can feed data gathered from customer interactions into smart CRM systems, as well.

There aren’t any mature general-use chatbots, so this is a tool that needs to be built by a software developer. In spite of that, they’re more affordable than most people would guess.

An experienced developer can put a chatbot together relatively simply using platforms like Amazon AI.

Make timely, informed decisions with custom analytics dashboards.

Enterprise software often comes with embedded analytics for tracking data. The problem comes when companies are trying to juggle several tools that all have their own reporting systems.

Once SMBs reach this point, the next step is to have a custom analytics dashboard built.

A dashboard pulls data from multiple sources into one place to power data-driven decision making in real time.

The live feed provides a window into current and future operations. Instead of wading through pages of reports, leaders can spot opportunities for new promotions or possible problems in time to act quickly.

Getting Past the “AI Jitters”

At the end of the day, artificial intelligence has as much to offer small to medium businesses as it does for multinational corporations. It levels the playing field, letting SMBs operate like they have a team of analysts on staff.

Don’t be unnerved by AI. Treat it like any other business tool. Start with a small integration, learn what it can do and where the company’s needs lie, and move forward based on business goals.

Wondering how AI can help your business? Concepta offers free consultations to discuss where you’re going and how technology can get you there. Set up your appointment today!

Request a Consultation

Serverless Computing: Breaking Up With Backend

Serverless-Computing

Serverless computing offers a shortcut to better, more enterprise-friendly software – with a few drawbacks.

For a long time servers were a limiting factor in app development. Building, configuring, and maintaining them took time and money, and getting apps out quickly was nearly impossible. Cloud computing started to change all that.

The rising trend of “serverless” architecture is pushing the envelope even further further. Services like AWS Lambda offer companies a shortcut to release day, and some of the biggest names in the game are jumping on board.

What is Serverless Computing?

Serverless computing takes the work of building, maintaining, and configuring servers off developers’ hands. The term “serverless” is a little misleading since there are servers involved, but they’re functionally invisible from the client side since the vendor takes care of them.

The serverless model is a few steps past the better-known cloud architecture model. Under cloud architecture companies build on cloud storage, but there are still servers that have to be accessed and monitored. Serverless removes that requirement.

Developers simply choose an environment, upload a codefile, and the system automatically deploys. The provider manages everything related to server function.

Sometimes serverless computing, which is also called “function as a service” (FaaS) gets confused for “platform as a service” (PaaS). The two concepts have a lot in common with one important distinction.

  • PaaS is always running to be prepared for incoming requests.
  • FaaS is event-driven. It breaks applications down into individual functions and only runs them as they’re needed.

Benefits of FaaS

The obvious advantage of going serverless is scaling. FaaS offers highly responsive horizontal scaling that handles fluctuating demand with ease. User experience remains high even during the surges in traffic that follow viral posts or product releases.

Serverless computing is budget-friendly, too. Because functions are “dormant” in between function calls, clients are only billed for what they actually use. They don’t have to pay for idle resources.

Development, deployment, and maintenance costs are also lower for many of the same reasons as other BaaS and PaaS solutions. Better yet, developers can work in smaller teams since they don’t need to set up or maintain servers.

All of this adds up to the most important benefit of FaaS solutions. They’re enterprise-oriented by design. The list of advantages reads like a checklist of business priorities:

  • Budget: Initial investments are smaller (with lower ongoing operating costs when labor is taken into account).
  • User experience: FaaS offers high availability and low latency. Plus, developers can focus on making a high-quality app rather than worrying about servers.
  • Scalability: Serverless computing is easy to expand and upgrade as needed, meaning it fits well into microservice architectures.
  • Fast development: Using FaaS shortens the time to market by cutting down on the developer’s workload.

Cautions and Limitations of FaaS

Of course, the nature of serverless computing gives it some less appealing traits as well. FaaS is geared towards providing smaller services at scale.

There are hard limits on temporary local storage, hard execution timeouts, and limits to memory and CPU usage per execution. In simpler terms, it’s perfect for updating a web form but less practical for uploading a video.

Trying to test or debug FaaS applications gets complicated. There are some solutions being developed, but the technology is too new for any to be considered mature yet.

There’s also the unavoidable reality of vendor lock-in. When a third party is in charge of server management, migration is both hard and expensive.

Developers should be careful to choose reputable, stable companies like AWS Lambda or Microsoft Azure to reduce the possibility of vendor-related disruptions.

Making the Call

When is serverless computing the right choice?

Serverless computing has some great use cases that dovetail with modern business priorities.

  • Chatbots and virtual assistants
  • Internet of Thing (IoT) applications
  • Sharing static content (especially image-rich content)
  • Extending monolithic architecture by pulling out high-demand functions

For CPU or memory intensive applications, it’s not the best choice. Latency issues when handling those kinds of tasks damages user experience, leading to lower retention rates.

There may also be legal concerns that make serverless computing risky for companies bound by HIPAA guidelines and other strict regulations.

These are issues that need to be worked out with an experienced developer before choosing FaaS.

Like any technology, serverless computing delivers the best results when used within its design scope. Sit down with our highly-trained team of developers to find out whether FaaS is right for your next enterprise application.

Request a Consultation

How AI Helps Major Brands Like Hilton Provide Top-Notch Guest Services

hotel-Artificial-Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is expanding the hospitality industry’s ability to provide customized service on a large scale. That’s a major competitive edge in a market where customer experience is emerging as the key brand differentiator for guests.

Artificial intelligence does more than power robots. It helps provide superior service throughout the booking process and even during a guest’s stay.

When Hilton and IBM announced the first Watson-enabled robot concierge two years ago, some critics dismissed “Connie” as a publicity stunt. As time goes by, though, Connie seems less like a gimmick and more like a bellwether.

The Value of Personalized Guest Services

With the rise of the internet price and relative quality play a much smaller role in consumer purchasing decisions. Unless there’s a huge local event customers feel confident of finding a comparable room at a similar price within a reasonable distance. The new key motivator for hotel guests is customer experience. A few dollars either way is seen as less important than a smooth, enjoyable stay.

This might not sound like anything new to hoteliers. Customer service doesn’t mean what it used to, though. The world is more connected than ever, with consumers interacting with brands on a personal level through social media platforms.

This shifts their expectations of customer service- especially in the hospitality industry – closer to the treatment they expect from an acquaintance or someone they know in real life.

It’s no longer good enough for businesses to be polite, prompt, and competent. They also need to make the customer feel personally recognized and welcome, to remember preferences and set them up without guests having to ask.

Statistics back up the importance of tailored guest services. 76% of consumers think customer service is the best measure of how much a company values their business. More than half of customers will pay more for better service.

On the flip side, 7 out of 10 people will stop patronizing a business if they feel the company is indifferent to them. Last year 56% of Millennials moved away from businesses they’d previously been loyal to after a bad customer experience.

The change in customer expectations goes even farther than that. While customers want personalized service, they also consider the ability to self-serve part of a good customer experience.

This generation prides itself on being tech savvy and enjoys being able to manipulate their surroundings to their exact comfort levels. 73% of guests want to be able to solve minor problems on their own without having to talk to a clerk.

Source: Concepta, Inc.

The trend is especially common in hospitality when people may be “in for the night” and don’t want to get dressed or deal with people. Humorously, a 2015 study found that a third of customers would rather clean a toilet than get dressed and walk downstairs to talk to a concierge in person.

These trends combined create a strangely contradictory situation. Guests want personalized service and to have help available when needed, but in daily practice want to be able to do most things for themselves.

Filling the Gap with Artificial Intelligence

AI is making great strides in bridging the gap between a guest’s expectation of personalized interactions and the desire for self-service.

Two primary tools show special promise for the hospitality industry: virtual assistants and guest services apps.

Virtual assistants

Connie’s physical presence is a fun draw for guests, but virtual assistants cover more digital territory. Virtual assistants are a type of chatbot which can serve guests both in and outside hotels at any stage of the process. They’re faster and more economical to deploy than tangible robots, and they are available anywhere a customer has internet access.

Advances in Natural Language Processing enable virtual assistants to understand normal, unformatted questions with a high rate of accuracy, especially when restricted to one domain (like hospitality).

They can supply technical support, find information about hotels or nearby amenities, change reservations, update profiles, handle customer complaints, and more. Virtual assistants are on duty 24/7 and never have bad days. They are always focused on the guest’s needs and aren’t bothered by stressed customers.

Virtual assistants and chatbots aren’t just a tool for huge multinational hotel brands. Concierge apps are within reach even for smaller or local chains. The Edwardian Hotels, a British group with 13 properties, launched their virtual host “Edward” in 2016. Edward provides hotel amenities, directions and tips.

Guests find it easier to complain to Edward or bring up problems which living staff can then address. It speaks to the maturity of AI that around 90% of users think Edward is a living employee.

Guest Services Apps

Using a mobile app to engage with guests is right in line with the growing BYOD trend. From a business standpoint hotels save the expense of supplying in-room devices to control services. From the customer service side, guests can use their own favorite devices while still taking advantage of the hotel’s artificial intelligence services.

Those artificial intelligence services get a boost from mobile apps, too. Mobile apps track customer data and combine it with data from the main company website, landing pages, and competitors. Analyzing the data lets the hotel’s AI translate its insights into intuitive customer service.

The result is a seamless mobile experience for guests and more opportunities for hotels to provide amazing service. AI-powered recommendation engines can look over a guest’s purchase history, location preferences, customer profile, and other data sources and make suggestions to improve their visit.

Suggestions might come before their stay (like displaying favorite hotel locations and custom rates when a flight is purchased) or during  the stay (such as finding restaurants of a preferred type or adjusting temperature controls when a guest checks in). Guests can potentially connect their app with related apps such as airline loyalty programs and vacation clubs for even more personalized service.

From Booking to Checkout

To see what does artificial intelligence can look like in practice, let’s track a stay from booking to departure.

Before Booking

A potential customer visits the hotel’s website. They aren’t sure which location to choose, so they access the hotel’s virtual assistant. Using any available data supplied by the customer or their guest profile, the assistant finds chain locations which fit their preferred criteria.

Once a location is selected, an intelligent price optimization system can evaluate the customer to offer the price that best meets their needs while still being profitable. If that price doesn’t work, the assistant can find other suitable locations with the desired amenities which may work better for the guest.

More options are available for existing customers with the hotel’s app. When they book a flight through a connected service, the app generates a list of suitable locations nearby with availability and sends it with a push notification. It’s based on the customer’s profile and preferences, so the guest knows the hotels will meet their needs.  Customers can book as easily as tapping their desired location.

In both cases, the app uses available data to suggest methods of transportation to the hotel, whether it’s a shuttle, a taxi, or a ride share. As customers use the app, it can learn their preferences and prioritize those suggestions the next time.

When problems do arise a chatbot resolves them around the clock. Customers can thus make adjustments before an early flight or find last-minute reservations after business hours.

During a Stay

Hotel apps can power check-in and even unlock doors, but AI adds a whole new dimension of customized services. By analyzing a guest’s purchase history, it suggests services the guest is likely to want. These range from local dinner options near the guest’s preferred dinner time to open spa times for customers who normally visit it during their stay.

Analyzing location preferences lets the AI interact with Google Maps or other programs to suggest tourist attractions and restaurants nearby. Recommendations are made based on data the guest shares with the app, so guests who enable location can discover events or local hotspots they might have missed otherwise.

On a physical level, AI can weigh current weather reports and the user’s climate control preferences and automatically adjust a room as soon as it’s assigned. By the time the guest arrives from downstairs, the temperature is right at their comfort level.

Checkout and Beyond

If a customer has an early flight, AI can offer a breakfast menu and schedule delivery along with a wake-up call. It provides a tailored list of transportation options for those who didn’t drive. When a guest has questions about billing, services, or other issues the AI serves as a first point of customer service contact.

Once the customer leaves, the data gathered during their stay is used to adjust their guest profile. This leads to better service when they return.

Source: Concepta, Inc

Building the Foundation for Artificial Intelligence

AI is only as good as the data that feeds it. It’s vital for hotels to get their data pipeline in order as part of launching an artificial intelligence initiative. This includes:

  • Migrating legacy data and data in their RMS or an ERP into a system that can be easily processed by AI;
  • Breaking down unnecessary data silos;
  • Eliminating bottlenecks to ensure data gets to the people or services who need it.

Companies should make sure their AI that was trained on location-relevant datasets. Feeding an American app Chinese data will result in poor service, for example, since cultural differences could mislead the algorithms.

Information security must be emphasized, as well. The enormous amounts of data that needs to be collected on customers in order to provide this level of service imposes a serious responsibility on hotels.

They must be absolutely sure to follow industry best practices for security (such as encryption, careful monitoring of third-party usage, and full transparency regarding data usage). Good security puts customers’ minds at ease and will encourage them to use the AI-powered services.

Moving Forward Without Losing Focus

Hotels are in the hospitality business, not the software development business. Rather than lose focus from their core competencies to design an AI, it’s better to build on existing products in the beginning.

Several major software companies already have viable chatbots and virtual assistants; integrating those into an intelligent guest services platform both saves money and creates a seamless customer experience for guests who already use those tools.

Partner with specialized software and data-driven companies to find the best technological fit. Be open to advice on readiness of the data infrastructure and which features to implement first. Leveraging a reputable software developer’s experience is the surest path towards a smooth adoption of artificial intelligence.

Are you providing the experience your guests expect? Sit down with one of Concepta’s experienced developers for a complimentary look at where your company is, where it’s going, and what tools will get you there.

Request a Consultation

Chatbots Will Be the Virtual Assistant You’re Looking For

While it may seem like the mobile app craze is just getting off the ground, there is a new and even more advanced trend hovering just around the corner — bots. Chatbots utilize artificial intelligence, allowing users to communicate through their devices to access news, weather, entertainment, shopping and more.

What makes bots superior to apps is that bots are interactive — they can carry out commands much like Apple’s Siri.

Essentially, different bots provide different services to the user, acting as a specialized and convenient personal assistant. With one bot to manage your finances, another to order dinner and yet another for scheduling work meetings, mobile users can reach new heights in personalized digital assistance.

All Aboard the Bot Revolution

Bots are not the center of attention in tech news like apps often are. However, hints of a bot revolution are lurking just about everywhere you look, while app downloads have taken a serious dip.

Juggling apps for each area of your life can become exhausting — learning to use, update and regularly check each app can create even more work than it eliminates. Meanwhile, interacting with bots is more immediate and only requires you to know a language and speak or type.

Basically, bots are the closest you’ll get to face-to-face conversation in the digital sphere.

Many brands have already begun utilizing bots for customer service and a variety of other functions.

In April 2016, Facebook launched a platform for developers to begin building chatbots through their messaging system. While heavily focused on e-commerce, the Facebook platform also gave a CNN bot as an example of how news can be delivered even faster than through traditional social media outlets.

Kik Messenger launched its first bot store in April of 2016 as well, offering 16 new bots, including one for Vine, The Weather Channel, and Funny or Die. Amazon’s launch of Alexa, along with Microsoft’s Cortana provide further evidence that big companies are joining the bot revolution to streamline tasks for their users.

Creating a Case for Chatbots and Your Brand

Small businesses and marketers would be wise to jump on the bot development trend before industries become over-saturated with bots. Just as social media has become a necessity for modern businesses to stay relevant, chatbots will soon be a necessity instead of just an additional option.

The paradigm shift from print to digital marketing revolutionized the way businesses communicate with their audiences. Now, bots will change the business-to-consumer relationship even further, removing common barriers to conversation.

A Business Insider study showed that it takes companies an average of 10 hours to respond to customers. With automatic responses from bots, you can increase customer satisfaction while maintaining a positive brand reputation and freeing up staff for more important and complex tasks.

For brands without bots, customer care is delegated to employees that already have a lot on their plates, such as marketing teams, PR professionals and social media managers. Bots can not only reduce customer waiting time, but also mimic human customer service reps in a natural way.

Despite the common belief that bots are too impersonal and automated, brands can carefully craft a chatbot personality that actually represents their brand values.

The key to success is for brands to determine the kind of bot that will provide the most value before development even begins. Is your main priority increasing sales, retention rates or new customer acquisition? These factors will help you narrow down your options for building the most appropriate bot.

For more information, contact us today or visit our website.