How small businesses can use GenAI the right way

By Soon-Ee Cheah, GM of AI, Xero

On multiple fronts, small businesses are facing challenges requiring them to adapt fast. From soaring energy costs squeezing margins, to escalating inflation affecting the price of inventory and a dearth of available staff to support growth, business owners and operators are on a quest for efficiency wherever they can find it. The increasing role of technology serves both as another force for these businesses to grapple with and a potential solution to the other challenges at play.

This year, the advent of artificial intelligence (AI), especially after the launch of ChatGPT – a tool that harnesses generative AI (GenAI) – has captured not only the imagination of large enterprises but also inspired smaller firms with its simplicity and accessibility. According to our own research, 64% of UK small businesses anticipate that AI will have an impact on their business within the next five years, and a quarter (24%) are planning to experiment with AI tools in the next 12 months.

While GenAI can be a great benefit when used correctly, it can also be risky. So is it right for your small business? The answer depends on a number of contextual factors. But for those contemplating whether adopting GenAI is the right path, here are four tips for using AI: 

Tip #1: Understand where to use it

Before buying in, make sure you understand which specific tasks GenAI is best at? GenAI specialises in aiding content creation, encompassing text, images and audio, by learning from existing content data sets. It comprehends intricate relationships within content, such as word-to-word associations or colour-to-colour correlations, using this knowledge to generate fresh content.

It’s crucial to recognise that, unlike conventional AI that is optimised to perform well on specific tasks, GenAI was created to generate human-like content. That means the performance of GenAI on a task in your business is hard to know ahead of time. Doing some hands-on experiments is incredibly valuable – giving you the opportunity to understand first-hand whether it will meet your needs. The more a task demands specialist knowledge and experience, the more thorough testing is required to assess whether GenAI is appropriate for the business or task in question. 

Tip #2: Define the task clearly

Can you articulate the task you want AI to complete in clear and straightforward terms? With GenAI, it’s imperative to provide a well-defined task description for optimal results.

Practically speaking, if you’re thinking of using a GenAI tool to summarise a meeting from a transcript, the question to be asking is “how well can I describe what’s worth summarising?”

The better you can describe what you want the summary to include, like names, dates, or action items, the more likely  the tool will do just that. But if you ask the GenAI tool to do broad or poorly defined tasks like “describe how the meeting went” or “did the meeting go well?” – the less likely you are to get a good outcome.

Generating marketing content is governed by the same principle. Can you describe the desired style and length of the content? It’s similar to how you’d get the best out of a collaborator or colleague – do they understand your expectations? 

Tip # 3: Feed AI the right data

When using GenAI, or any AI, it’s essential to consider the additional information required for it to provide accurate responses. GenAI excels with general knowledge but becomes less reliable when confronted with queries that require specialised expertise or experience.

For example, if you were using GenAI to write an ad that celebrates what makes your small business unique – perhaps it’s the customer service, or unrivalled product knowledge. Without providing that information to the tool it’s not going to produce content that captures what makes your small business uniquely yours.

It’s also vital to think about privacy and security. We know 48% of UK businesses said they would trust AI with their personally identifiable customer information. Therefore, when using AI or GenAI tools, it’s important to be vigilant about providing data that contains personal or confidential information. This means ensuring that you have the necessary permissions to share data with AI tools and always prioritising data security. Don’t forget to address questions regarding intellectual property ownership and copyright as well. 

Tip #4: Lower the stakes

My final recommendation is to assess the stakes involved. After all, not all tasks are created equal. Using GenAI to brainstorm content for your next newsletter differs significantly from relying on it to respond to customer emails on your behalf.

Always remember that GenAI is designed to sound like a human, not be unequivocally right about everything – those are two different things. And that means it’s bound to make a mistake – not an if, but when.

When choosing where to use GenAI tools, think about whether mistakes might carry any consequences for you – be it reputational damage with your customers or wasted time and effort fixing mistakes. One of the easiest ways to lower the stakes when using GenAI is to have someone check the accuracy of the content before use.

The more aware you are of whether a task is high or low stakes, the better you’ll be able to design how you use the GenAI tool safely.

Adopting a forward-thinking approach to technology such as AI, small businesses can better harness its potential for positive impact. By understanding its potential, as well as its limitations, AI can complement, rather than replace, the people who contribute to the greatness of small businesses.