Tech

What are the best smart tools and solutions for your business?

Written by Noah Bethilda

AI-powered tools and services have been around for some time, but they can be complex, and often pose too many technical challenges to be implemented by the average SMB.

It doesn't have to be this way. Anyone can get started with AI by focusing on small, but still important business processes and tasks. How much time do you spend on scheduling meetings, for instance? Give the responsibility to a smart agent and you'll be better able to focus on what really matters to your business.

And if you don't have the developers or technical knowledge to produce your own customer service chatbot or data analytics tools, that may not matter as much as you think. Many developers are building AI functionality into their own products and services, giving you a good deal of the benefits with none of the usual implementation hassles.

Take this route, then, and you can stop worrying about AI technicalities and focus instead on the potential benefits to your business. Here are some SMB-friendly products and services you might want to check out.

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Schedule meetings

Setting up a meeting is one of those tasks that seems very simple, yet can tie you up for an age as you check your schedule, send multiple emails to every participant, answer follow-up messages and generally try to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Signing up with X.ai gets you an AI scheduling assistant which aims to take all this off your hands, freeing up your time to deal with more important issues.

There's no bulky web interface to navigate, or app to install. All you have to do is cc: the x.ai service (via its Andrew or Amy agents) when you ask your contact for a meeting.

Andrew/Amy checks your schedule via its Google, Outlook.com and Office 365 calendar integration, and sends an email to your contact suggesting available dates. It processes replies until a date and time are agreed, then sends invitations to both you and your contact.

X.ai could save you a lot of time, especially if you're regularly scheduling meetings with lots of participants. It's reasonably priced, too, with all the core features available for $17 (£13.60) a month per user.

In principle, X.ai is a great service, but we have seen some mixed reviews over the reliability of the AI agents – some people like them, some say they're not smart enough to set up the meeting correctly every time. A free trial allows you to find out for yourself, though, and if X.ai doesn't work for you, take a look at competitors like Calendly and Clara.

Note taking

Voicera's Eva is a smart in-meeting assistant that aims to help you capture the key parts of a meeting, and identify action items for follow-up later.

The service works just about everywhere: person-to-person calls, conference calls, in-person meetings, in Skype, Cisco WebEx, GoToMeeting, Google Hangouts, UberConference and more.

Setup is easy. Invite Eva@voicera.com as another participant to the meeting, and she can take part in just about any conferencing system call with a dial-in.

At its simplest, Eva uses voice recognition to record the meeting, and transcribes what's happening with human-level accuracy.

Users can tell Eva to record key moments only by using voice commands or by tapping on a straightforward web interface.

Any participant is able to mark a particular moment as important, and this can be shared with other team members who might not be present.

A related Meeting X-Ray feature highlights the key elements of the meetings and links back to audible records of those moments, allowing anyone to review what happened at a later date.

Voicera is in public beta and free until the beginning of February 2018.

Helpdesk chatbots

There are an increasing number of services which help you create custom AI customer service chatbots and agents. Building the bot yourself gives you a lot of fine-tuned control over how it works, but the design process takes some time and technical skill, and figuring out how to integrate it with your website or business will be an issue in itself.

A simpler approach could be to use a helpdesk solution which already has an integrated intelligent assistant, and Zendesk Answer Bot is one of the best.

The bot doesn't ask you to build some brand new standalone knowledgebase, which you'll then have to manage and maintain separately. Instead it uses machine learning to analyze the contents of your existing Zendesk Guide knowledgebase, and figure out the most likely relevant articles to any given request.

Answer Bot can sort out many issues all on its own. The service is able to read emails, extract the meaning and suggest the most appropriate articles. If this helps the customer solve the problem, they can mark their question as answered, and the ticket will be closed. If it fails, your customer may still appreciate that they've received a speedy response, and the ticket will be routed to a human agent as usual.

Answer Bot is available as a monthly subscription on top of your regular Zendesk fees. Prices start at $1 (£0.80) a month per successful resolution – $100 (£80) for 100 resolutions, for example – with discounts for high-volume users (10,000 resolutions would be $7,000, or around £5,600).

The savings you might make will depend on your business, but if spending $6 (£4.80) saves one hour of agent time and gets customers useful help in minutes instead of hours, that's probably a price worth paying.

Intelligent CRM

Data analysis is one of the most worthwhile areas for employing AI, but most solutions are targeted very much at enterprise users. If you don't have terabytes of data to examine, and a deep understanding of languages like R and Python, you're likely to feel left out.

CRM giant Salesforce offers a much simpler alternative with Salesforce Einstein, its collection of AI-powered tools which can deliver a range of benefits right across your business.

This starts by automating and optimizing many sales processes, with tools to identify new contacts, record and manage activities, score leads and identify opportunities.

Einstein's marketing tools can recommend the best product, content or offer for any channel, predict customer engagement and help you understand when and why customers choose to purchase (or not).

Einstein Discovery is the 'big data' module, analyzing millions of data combinations to help you understand and predict future trends.

The feature list goes on and on, with modules covering anything from providing personalized product recommendations, to chatbot creation and sophisticated image recognition tools that can recognize your brand, products and more.

These tools won't always have the power and configurability you'll get from a specialist provider like Amazon AWS, but they're more varied and capable than you might expect, and certainly easier to set up. Well worth a look if your current CRM isn't as intelligent as you'd like.

Optimize advertising campaigns

Acquisio is a powerful service for creating and optimizing advertising campaigns across all the publishers you work with, including Google, Facebook, Bing, Instagram and more.

The service can help you build ads, and provides tools to help you see where you're successful, and where you're really not.

A Workbench module enables browsing and analyzing data from all your publishers. You can tweak and customize your views, look for trends and understand which channels are delivering the best results.

Although you could use Acquisio just to manage your campaigns manually, the real value of the service comes in its Acquisio Turing engine. This set of 30 predictive algorithms monitors your campaign data to take account of seasonality, times of day, location, positioning, ad platform and more. Machine learning technology allows Acquisio Turing to better understand your results, and the service will update its bid and budget decisions if necessary, in real-time, to get the best possible value for your money.

Acquisio suggests that the technology increases conversion rates by an average of 71%, and allows accounts to last three months longer for a monthly ad spend of $500 (£400) or less. We don't know what the results might be for you, but you can try Acquisio for free, and a Starter product covering up to $5,000 (£4,000) worth of ad spend is available for $199 (£159) a month.

It's a capable package, but if you're on a strict budget then take a look at MailChimp. This also allows creating ads and managing campaigns across multiple platforms, and uses intelligent marketing to target customers based on behavior, preferences and previous sales.

Take revenge on spammers

AI doesn't always have to be serious, expensive or complicated – the technology can be fun, too.

Even Gmail's excellent spam filters can't guarantee to keep your inbox junk-free, for instance, so the chances are you're wasting at least some time dealing with the leftovers. The next time you're told you've won $50 million in a non-existent competition, forward the email to me@rescam.org. The site chatbot will respond to the scammer – not using your address – and waste their time with endless pointless questions, so at least you know they’re not able to hassle anyone else.

The iOS app RoboKiller is a smarter version for your iPhone. It can detect, block or use bots to answer spammers. Voice fingerprinting, spoofing protection and enhanced caller ID helps identify and block spam calls, and you can create personal Allow Lists to ensure friends, family and colleagues can always get through.

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