Featured Article – AI in 2021 For Small Businesses

6th January 2021

In this article, we look at some of the ways that SMEs can access and use AI to improve efficiency and add value.

SMEs Optimistic About AI

Contrary to a popular belief that AI may still be a little ‘pie in the sky’ for many SMEs, an Adecco study (2017) showed that small businesses are more open and optimistic about AI and its potential to boost business growth than larger companies. The study, which took into account the views of 1000 workers in 13 sectors across the UK showed that companies with more than 5,000 staff are almost twice as sceptical about the business impact of AI compared to businesses with less than 250 employees.

Machine Learning and AI

Just to clear up some of the popular terminologies that are often used interchangeably, artificial intelligence (AI) is the encompassing concept that machines can execute tasks “smartly” whereas machine learning contributes to this as machines (through algorithms) can be trained, can learn, and can adapt through experience.

Business-Led Approach

Business-led (rather than technology-led) applications of AI are likely to yield better results as this approach leads to a focus that can mean AI solving real problems in a value-adding way.

Already Using AI

Some examples of how SMEs are already using existing AI-powered tools in a business-led way as part of their daily/regular work include:

– Operating systems and add-ons + digital assistants. These include Windows 10 which has Cortana, Teams, and other AI-powered features. Apple incorporates the Siri assistant and Amazon’s AI-powered digital assistant is, of course, Alexa.

– CRMs. These include Salesforce and Zoho, with its ‘Zia’ AI-powered assistant.

– Popular email platforms. In September for example, Mailchimp launched a set of AI-based tools to give small businesses access to the same kind of capabilities as their larger competitors. These include personalised product recommendations for shoppers, forecasting tools for behavioural targeting (of those most likely to buy), a tool to help businesses design their own visual asset and a tool to help write better email subject lines.

– Banking apps. For example, the Lloyds Bank, Halifax, and Bank of Scotland banking app use AI to give customers mobile notifications which can be customised to track their spending and transactions.

– Online and mobile advertising e.g., AdWords and Facebook adverts.


There are many resources and solutions to be found online that can help SMEs to access and use AI.  Some of the AI resources include:

– Google’s AI Tools.  Google’s online AI tools at https://ai.google/tools/ include the TensorFlow browser-based library for training ML models, and ML Kit as well as guides to ML and AI at https://ai.google/education/. Other AI products such as AI platform (for building machine learning models), Cloud AutoML for building ML models with minimal expertise, and AI Building Blocks can be found at https://cloud.google.com/products/ai.

– Microsoft’s (Azure) AI platform ‘Microsoft AI’ offers tools and help to develop AI solutions in conversational AI, machine learning, data sciences, robotics, IoT, and more.  See: https://azure.microsoft.com/en-us/overview/ai-platform/.  Also, Microsoft BI uses AI to model and visualise business data to help with decision making.  See: https://powerbi.microsoft.com/en-us/what-is-power-bi/

– Amazon Web Services (AWS) offers a set of set machine learning tools for businesses here https://aws.amazon.com/ai/ plus a number of resources and guides here https://aws.amazon.com/ai/resources/.

– Funded by UK Innovate, the GoSmarter Toolbox gives SMEs six automation tools to easily and quickly automate invoice processing, meeting management, online bookings, sales processing, social media listening and more.  See: https://gosmarter.ai/.

– The UK government website provides many guides related to the use of AI, such as https://www.gov.uk/guidance/planning-and-preparing-for-artificial-intelligence-implementation.

– Various ‘out of the box’ AI-based tools can help solve common problems for SMEs. Examples include Timely, an app/digital record of all project and team time (https://memory.ai/timely), and Sage Ap Automation to help work with freelancers or external contractors this AI-based tool manages outgoing and incoming expenses and does the banking reconciliation. Other interesting ‘out of the box’ examples include Brisk which uses real-time data feeds to automate the monitoring of risks and opportunities for small businesses e.g., late-paying customers, supply chain disruption, online reputation, cybersecurity, employee well-being and more (https://www.getbrisk.com/), Scribless which enables small businesses to create handwritten messages at scale (replicate the handwriting of clients) to help create more effective marketing campaigns (https://scribeless.co/), and multiple applicant tracking/recruiting/HR solutions such as People HR (https://www.peoplehr.com/recruitment.html) and GoHire (https://gohire.io/).

Real-World Examples

Real-world examples of how SMEs are have used/are using AI to leverage their resources and add value include:

– Predictive Algorithms.  For example, as highlighted by NatWest, hotel technology specialist Noetic have developed predictive algorithms for hotels, based on data gathered through their websites that can identify what makes a good guest and can help the hotel to keep the guest and rely less on travel agents by offering these cheap to acquire, high spending guests more of what is known to attract them and keep their loyalty.

– Virtual customer service agents.  For example, SoDash, a social media and digital customer services agent can make customer service more efficient by collecting messages from many different channels e.g., Twitter, Facebook, email, and SMS, categorising them and sending automatic responses to common enquiries.

In Summary

In summary, AI can be used to enhance and improve many different aspects of business for SMEs including improving marketing and sales (making them smarter and improving insights), reducing repetitive, mundane tasks and freeing up more valuable resources, helping to manage finances, HR and recruitment, expanding the team with a chatbot, tracking a website user’s journey (and analysing their behaviour), and much more.

Using a business-led approach, looking closely at particular work challenges, and conducting an inventory of what skills are available within the business, companies can decide how they want to begin using AI e.g., an off the shelf solution, buying in initial expertise or committing in-house development time and resources in order to start gaining real-world benefits from AI that could translate into important competitive advantages.

Looking Ahead

The extreme disruption caused to global markets, business and supply chains by the pandemic and the realisation that more future business will be online lends itself to greater use of AI.  With more accessible and affordable AI products and resources available than ever before, many SMEs may now be seriously thinking about how AI can help them at least improve efficiency and improve automation as they look towards making the best of the recovery when it comes.