Artificially intelligent chatbots aren't just for Fortune 500 companies anymore. Thanks to a slew of innovative bot ventures that focus on the user experience, small business owners are now using AI technology to improve daily operations, connect with clients and increase sales. Heavy hitters like Mark Zuckerberg and Satya Nadella have publicly touted the value of AI chatbot technology, and with Google investing in Allo, Facebook's launch of Messenger, Windows' rollout of Cortana, and the early success of Operator and Telegram, it's reasonable to assume that AI chatbots are going to be ubiquitous.
Here's how early adopters in the small business category are currently engaging with AI chatbot technology through subscription services, custom builds, free services and beta testing.
1. Conversational Commerce
A relatively new term coined by Chris Messina in 2015, conversational commerce is the latest buzzword surrounding AI chatbot technology. At its core, conversational commerce is exactly what it sounds like: purchasing an item within the context of a conversation with a chatbot. By creating a dialogue with a program that learns, stores information and changes, customers can purchase items with fewer steps than ever before. Some tech leaders even believe that conversational commerce will eventually replace all other modes of online shopping.
Chatfuel, a California-based company that builds custom bots, allows small business owners to create Facebook-ready chatbots in minutes without any technical expertise. Luca Friedrich, the Head of User Happiness at Chatfuel, wrote, "Lately, we see more and more small businesses adding Payments to their bots; it enables people to order a product directly in their Messenger app. I believe that this will become a lot more popular, as it is a great opportunity for business owners to make more revenue without having to buy a website or have someone build an online store for them."
What Friedrich is describing is the core of conversational commerce, and small business owners (especially those selling a consumer product or service) are already benefiting.
2. Customer Service
Chatbots are also gaining serious visibility in the customer service realm. Many small businesses are investing in custom AI chatbots to interact with customers, answer FAQs and even process payments. Rather than spending the time and money to respond individually to every inquiry, savvy business owners are streamlining the process with friendly bots that act as the first line of communication with customers.
Online tools such as Converse and Zendesk are popular among small business owners who want to create custom chatbots without coding and then integrate them across a variety of platforms. Businesses as varied as real estate offices, retail shops, health care centers, law offices, spas and consulting firms are already using these types of bots to interact with customers and provide fast hands-off service.
3. Personal Assistance
One of the simplest and most affordable ways small business owners are harnessing AI technology is by using personal assistant tools. Instead of accessing lots of different apps for secretarial tasks like making hotel reservations and ordering office supplies, you can now text a friendly AI assistant instead. Niki.ai is a personal concierge bot that can do everything from scheduling your laundry pickup to ordering you dinner, Pana is a smart bot that books travel accommodations through seamless conversations, and the popular x.ai bot has become a go-to for small business owners who don't want to schedule their own meetings anymore.
According to Dennis R. Mortensen, the CEO and founder of x.ai, taking just one task, like scheduling meetings, off the plate of busy entrepreneurs has a considerable cumulative effect.
"Our data shows that scheduling a single meeting takes about 17 minutes on average," he said. "Think about that for a second. If you're a small business owner, and you schedule eight meetings a week, you're wasting over two hours per week and nearly 10 hours a month scheduling your own meetings."
Part of x.ai's appeal, in addition to the time-saving element, is that it doesn't require an additional app or interface. All users have to do is cc Amy Ingram (or the bot's brother Andrew) on emails about meetings and the bot will automatically finish the task of scheduling and confirming for you.
4. Conversational Advertising
In the world of AI chatbots, conversational advertising is closely but not inextricably linked to conversational commerce. Advertising via direct messaging has more to do with increasing a business's visibility than processing orders, and it might not necessarily include a direct point of purchase within the conversation. Many small businesses now use advertising-focused chatbots to spread the word about special promotions, sales and discount codes, but the bots can also be used to raise visibility within a region or increase repeat patronage.
While conversational advertising hasn't taken the place of direct email marketing campaigns or comprehensive websites quite yet, it's still a great avenue for small business owners to diversify their marketing efforts. Messenger already allows users to sign up for updates from businesses they like, including small local businesses, so it might just be a matter of time before it becomes de rigueur to get appointment reminders from your dentist or tax accountant on a chat platform.
5. Intelligence and Analytics
Data gathering isn't the most obvious use for AI chatbots, but it's certainly a nice side effect of them. The AI aspect of many chatbots not only makes them easier for clients to use but better for small businesses as well. Most chatbots that are intended for customer interaction have a back end that collects and analyzes data, and companies such as Chatfuel provide their users with easy access to the analytics.
Each bot that Chatfuel builds keeps track of the general categories customers use, which means business owners can gradually tailor their individual bots to meet their clients' needs. As AI technology improves and chatbots become more sophisticated, the power of the analytics behind them will grow, making them a fantastic resource for businesses at every stage of growth.
The AI chatbot wave is just beginning, but it's already changing the way people interact with the internet and the way small businesses interact with their customers.