Business unusual: can AI help us build a more resilient economy?

In the coronavirus era, businesses need to adapt to succeed

The coronavirus has turned the world on its head. Attempts to control its spread have forced people to stay at home, shutting down industries and resulting in mass unemployment. In the US alone, the unemployment rate soared to 14.7% in April, representing job losses of 20.5 million, numbers not seen since the Great Depression. 

Although some leaders believe the economy will bounce back as quickly as it fell, reopening businesses is not as easy as closing them. According to the Guardian, restaurants in the US are seeing only 10% of pre-corona customer levels. Meanwhile, the International Airlines Group (IAG), owner of British Airways, stated that the demand for flights has been severely dented and may only return to normal in 2023. Although industries and countries may be tentatively reopening, without a coronavirus vaccine, many people are simply too scared to revert to normal behaviors. 

Let’s (not) get physical – digitally transforming business

COVID-19 has highlighted how heavily the global economy relies on physical, human interaction. We need to find ways to work and be productive, but without exacerbating the spread of COVID-19. Artificial intelligence could be the answer. 

In fact, the technology industry is already faring better than most, as employees are able to work remotely. Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter have advised employees to work from home until the end of the year, while some tech startups have even managed to raise large sums of investment capital, as their business models prove successful even in the face of a global pandemic. It seems clear that digitization guarantees resilience. 

However, AI could take this to the next level – helping businesses remain competitive despite the radical change in our society. Here’s how. 

AI can provide insights that drive business decisions

When it comes to selling a project or a service, it’s vital to know what your customers want. AI-powered models can analyze vast volumes of data, detect patterns and interpret meaning. The insights provided by these algorithms provide crucial direction for any business. In the era of coronavirus, this holds especially true as customers shift away from personal interactions and instead engage in online shopping, banking and food ordering. AI models can help to:

  • recommend prospective clients for a sales rep to pursue;
  • predict what a customer is likely to buy; 
  • automate personalized targeting of digital marketing materials; 
  • match demand with supply; and
  • forecast cash flow. 

These cognitive insights work to help sales rep prioritize which customers to focus on, target customers with products or sales they are more likely to buy, and automate administrative functions, giving the sales rep more time to focus on meeting (even virtually) with clients and closing deals. 

By analyzing data, AI models can also help businesses to balance supply and demand. This will be critical to success as we emerge from the coronavirus crisis. For example, a large steel producer will use AI models to analyze external factors that may influence the demand for steel, including the demand for cars. Without a proper understanding of demand, businesses will severely compromise their ability to remain profitable. 

As the world struggles through the virus pandemic, cash flow is bound to be a serious concern for many businesses as revenue streams dry up. AI models can analyze data to help businesses with cash-flow forecasting, helping them to make sure they have sufficient funds to survive. 

AI can automate processes

Robotic Process Automation (RPA) is being combined with machine learning to carry out a range of back-office service operations. As a business-process automation tool, RPA models basically act as humans do in terms of inputting and consuming information. RPA models can:

  • replace lost credit or ATM cards;
  • issue refunds;
  • cancel orders; and
  • automate claims processes for insurance companies and banks.

According to the Harvard Business Review, cost pressures at NASA caused the agency to launch four RPA pilots in human resources, accounts and IT spending. The projects performed so well that NASA decided to implement more RPA bots in various other sectors. 

In the past, RPA was used by businesses to free up employees to focus on more creative and important tasks. However, given the current economic climate and expected recession, it is possible that RPA will allow companies to automate many business functions, potentially slowing the rate of employment post-corona. 

AI can engage with customers and employees to keep them happy and motivated

Chatbots, voice assistants and digital agents powered by natural language processing and machine learning can help keep customers constantly engaged and buying. Cognitive engagement powered by AI means businesses can:

  • provide customers with 24/7 customer service in their home language and on a range of issues;
  • provide employees with assistance on a range of HR and IT issues; and
  • personalize the sales process with search and recommendation algorithms that connect and convert customers.

Before COVID-19 hit, large companies were already implementing AI-driven customer engagement solutions. In 2018, Vodafone became the first telecoms company to launch human-like digital assistants in stores. These intelligent digital humans (screen-based chatbots powered by AI technology) provided customers with personalized, in-store advice, and were the first to operate in a retail store in New Zealand. 

As e-commerce gains in popularity, it is not difficult to imagine how digital personal shoppers or assistants could reshape the future of retail, reducing the need for in-person interaction.

At a glance: how AI can help your business

Businesses who already use AI, are familiar with the technology’s many benefits. In 2017, the Harvard Business Review surveyed 250 executives about the goals of their AI initiatives. These were the results.

The future is now

Although many businesses were experimenting with AI technologies (see above), the uptake of AI has been relatively slow, especially considering its many benefits. However, COVID-19 has been the major disruptor. Now, businesses are forced to find ways to be productive and profitable with as little physical and human interaction as possible. Given that there is no vaccine and no therapeutic medication, it is likely to be a long time before we return to normal – if we ever do so. To survive these times and flourish in the post-corona world, businesses will need to adapt. AI can help them to do so.