COVID-19 ripped through economies all over the world, impacting businesses in mature and developing markets alike. Arguably the hardest hit are small to medium businesses, many of whom are struggling just to stay afloat.

The global pandemic has underscored how digitalization is no longer a choice for small medium businesses (SMBs), it’s a necessity. According to the 2020 Asia Pacific SMB Digital Maturity Study, nearly 70% of SMBs in the region are accelerating the digitalization of their businesses due to the pandemic.

The more resilient companies have used the crisis as an opportunity to change, accelerating their move towards digital transformation. Among the key emerging technologies integral to transformation are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML).

With delivering improved customer experiences being one of the top priorities driving digitalization among SMBs, let’s explore why AI / ML is more relevant than ever before and could just be the key to SMB recovery in these challenging times.


AI / ML solutions are now within reach

A still prevailing misconception is that AI and ML technologies are deemed only viable for large corporations and are not feasible for small businesses or start-ups. With the gradual advancement and cost-effectiveness of this technology, AI for SMBs is now becoming an industry reality because it has become much more cost-efficient to deploy and much quicker to go to market.

SMBs operate in very challenging environments and, often, when working capital is limited. Many of them struggle to find the budgets and resources needed to effectively design, deploy and manage AI and ML infrastructure.

However, given the widespread application and the way that the technology is delivered today, AI and ML solutions are available to SMBs in their own context, even in bite sizes. Furthermore, the growth of cloud-delivered AI and ML technologies have made them more accessible and affordable.


Integral to improving the customer experience

SMBs are constantly preoccupied with improving the customer experience and there are many examples of how AI and ML can help.

AI can be a boon to offering better, personalized customer experience, be it in the form of virtual personal assistants and chatbots on the customer-facing side, improving productivity and efficiency, or improving sales efforts at the backend.

Through the use of automated chatbots or digital assistants that work around the clock, SMBs can elevate their customer service and communication without having to hire and train additional manpower. At the same time, employees can focus on delivering higher value work, which in turn increases empowerment and improves performance.

AI can be especially impactful in enhancing sales and marketing efforts by extracting sales-related insights from customer data. For instance, AI-enabled customer relationship management tools are enabling SMB owners to quickly and accurately analyze their customer behaviours and adapt their sales lead generation activities accordingly.

Bob Mills Furniture, one of Cisco’s customers in the US, is a great example of how fully digitalized and automated platforms can help improve overall customer experience. With a big focus on delivering an exceptional customer experience, the company needed a platform that could measure the experience over a variety of channels and help it close the loop between customers, front-line employees, and the executive team.

Through the use of Cisco Webex Experience Management (formerly CloudCherry), each customer receives a Net Promoter Score (NPS) survey over SMS as well as an email message after their order delivery date to request feedback about their experience. Instant notifications from the system enable store managers to promptly follow up on negative feedback and resolve any issue for those customers. This real-time approach closes the loop on every customer comment and ensures that no two customers have to experience the same issue. In addition, customers that respond positively are sent to Google with a request to leave a public review. This process has resulted in gathering over 3,000 ratings on Google, with an average score of 4.4 out of 5.

Cisco Webex Experience Management also provides the data analytics to help companies identify opportunities for customer experience improvement. For Bob Mills Furniture, data from the customer surveys showed that deliveries were the sticking point of the customer experience. After continuing to focus on ways to improve the delivery experience, Bob Mills Furniture has increased its NPS from 50 to mid-60s in just six months.


Future-proofing your business

As AI technology become more accessible and affordable, industry leaders in the SMB space should ride this trend and evaluate the multiple components of AI including robotics, machine learning, natural language processing, and machine vision to see which fits the best into their business model.

However, the first question for many is, “Where do I start?”. We at Cisco offer eight steps to get you started:

  1. Develop a three-year technology road map
  2. Prioritize the critical business processes to automate
  3. Evaluate the right technologies to invest in – focus on empowering remote employees/workforce, a secure e-commerce platform and a robust cybersecurity network
  4. Invest in talent and skills focused on digital
  5. Find the right technology partner for your journey
  6. Leverage financing and remanufactured equipment to help with cash flow and budget requirements
  7. Keep up with industry trends and best practices
  8. Simplify, start small, learn and scale


SMBs are the hardest hit at this point of time, but they also have the potential to be the fastest to bounce back. SMBs are nimble and disruptive in nature. That kind of thinking, that kind of culture, aided by tech like AI and ML, will ensure that recovery will come sooner rather than later.