Answering machine

Generative AI has much value to add to SMEs across a vast spectrum of functions

Answering machine

With the advent of ChatGPT and its ilk, generative AI – GenAI – has grown into a big business, but that doesn’t mean small businesses can’t use it.

Speaking to Forbes magazine, Karen Kerrigan, president and CEO of the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council in the US, said small business owners have rapidly embraced AI. According to her, ‘93% of small business owners agree that AI tools offer cost-effective solutions that drive savings and improve profitability’.

Benjamin Rosman, professor of machine learning and robotics in Wits University’s school of computer science and applied mathematics, points out that a distinction must be made between the broader concept of AI and generative AI, or models that can generate text, images, audio and videos, such as ChatGPT and Gemini. ‘In reality, AI covers a very wide range of concepts, ranging from simple regression models – fitting a line to some data – to robotics,’ he says.

‘Since ChatGPT was released at the end of November 2022, there [has been] a large amount of hype around AI, but it is often the more common machine-learning models that make predictions from data that add value to a business.’

That said, he adds, with the release of ChatGPT ‘many more businesses are suddenly more aware of AI and feeling the need to incorporate it into their workflows. This is also made considerably easier that there has been a recent trend of tech companies releasing easy-to-use interfaces to their AI models that require minimal technical knowledge, if any at all’.

Microsoft, for example, launched its own generative AI-based administrative assistant, called Copilot, in 2023. Rolled out across all Microsoft 365 platforms, it is easily accessible to SMEs as well as larger enterprises, and complements its suite of applications that are already widely employed, such as Outlook, Excel, Teams and Word.

Drilling down into initial user surveys, the tech giant found that 70% of users said they were more productive; with 64% of them spending less time processing email and 85% producing a first draft faster. ‘As use of generative AI at work spreads, the real opportunity is to not only transform personal productivity but lift the capability of the entire organisation,’ according to the company.

In another US survey of how small businesses employ generative AI, conducted by small business digital marketing and automation platform Constant Contact, 91% of small businesses surveyed indicated that using the technology has made their businesses more successful.

Among the reasons cited for using generative AI are that it saves time that could be better spent on more important tasks; it cuts down on mistakes; it saves money; and it also enables them to grow their businesses faster. More than a quarter of respondents who use AI indicated that they expect it to save them at least $5 000 over the next 12 months.

In addition, generative AI can help SMEs fill orders more efficiently, streamline bookkeeping and interact with customers and manage staff.

‘Historically, machine learning – as a subfield of AI – has been deployed largely in roles such as making predictions, be it for anticipating hardware breakdowns or commodity prices; understanding data, such as customer sentiment on social media; or providing recommendations, such as products to customers,’ says Rosman.

‘This new wave of generative AI opens up many other possibilities, and we are seeing them deployed everywhere from helping to improve writing, to providing drafts of legal documents and presentations, acting as customer service chatbots and helping with coding. The role of AI has suddenly expanded from analytics to being able to play an important role in many spheres of a business, from HR to marketing.’


AI-powered chatbots can, for example, handle routine customer queries around the clock and deliver instant responses, which is beyond the capacity of most human customer consultants.

While recognising the benefits of AI for its small business clients, Absa is progressively harnessing the technology to enrich its own interaction with SMEs, according to Kgalaletso Tlhoaele, head of enterprise development.

He notes that brands have been able to disrupt industries by capitalising on AI-driven recommendation systems to suggest products tailored to individual client preferences. ‘Moreover, AI empowers SMEs to harness the wealth of data available through customer surveys, social media and digital platforms, refining and interpreting this data to glean industry insights, identify trends and recommend solutions to challenges,’ he says.

Leveraging generative AI as a virtual assistant, Absa offers round-the-clock business support to clients, says Tlhoaele. Its banking app, for example, features a chatbot to assist SMEs, ‘providing useful information regarding their business financial performance. We also have the ability to send AI-generated meeting notes and action items for online meetings held with clients to ensure alignment’.

According to Russ Morton, chief product officer at Constant Contact, an area where generative AI can make a big difference for SMEs is marketing. ‘Most small businesses are only marketers by necessity, and they are so busy running the show that it can feel overwhelming to find the time to create and manage marketing campaigns,’ he told Forbes. ‘That’s where AI and automation come in. Social media, content and email campaign creation are the most common areas we typically see [SMEs] using these technologies.

‘Automations allow them to put some of the most common marketing tasks on autopilot – like welcome emails, reminder texts, social media posts and campaign sends. That frees up valuable time for them to focus on all the other aspects of running their business. Once they’re a bit more sophisticated, they can use automation to send personalised campaigns that are more likely to increase customer engagement and drive sales. But automation becomes even more powerful when it’s paired with AI.’

Locally, Cape Town-based SME funder Retail Capital, a division of TymeBank, has launched ChatSME, which uses generative AI to provide guidance and support to small businesses. ‘With our beta testing currently open for early users to trial, we are opening Retail Capital’s first-hand experience and industry knowledge to everyone, allowing all SMEs – not only our customers – to ask questions, get advice and access tools to help grow their businesses,’ says Nesan Pather, project lead on ChatSME.

Retail Capital says ChatSME is like having a dedicated business specialist on speed dial, always available to address any questions a founder may have. The resources available to SMEs range from managing finances and building a brand to leveraging social commerce tools – ‘all at the click of a button’.

Rosman says that with the plethora of new tools entering the global market on a daily basis, some SMEs might find it difficult to decide which tool will be the most useful. He suggests they follow trends in generative AI closely, and seek advice on how best to incorporate these ideas into their businesses.

Adopting generative AI is not all plain sailing. In addition to cutting through the hype to determine which technology you can trust, another challenge is that some platforms are not stable.

Rosman says ChatGPT, for example, went through a phase last year of not performing optimally. Its accurate detection of prime numbers fell from 97.6% in March to 2.4% in June. ‘There are other major challenges, such as the fact that many of the platforms do not make it clear what they do with your data that you feed into them, and so you may be inadvertently giving away personal or corporate secrets when using them.’

Famously, Samsung last year temporarily banned its employees from using generative AI platforms on company-issued devices after a worker fed sensitive data into ChatGPT.

‘There are tremendous opportunities to use this technology to help start new businesses and accelerate growth in existing ones, and this has been seen all over the world,’ says Rosman. ‘But it requires the curiosity to embrace this technology and the sense to do so carefully.’

By Robyn Leary
Image: iStock