What AI can—and can’t—do for your small business

ChatGPT turned artificial intelligence from an abstract concept into an unavoidable reality, seemingly overnight.

Since its launch in late 2022, the generative AI chatbot has become the fastest-growing consumer software app in history, enabling anyone to ask questions, write articles, and generate code (among other things) in seconds.

For small businesses, these rapid advancements can come at a cost: You may know AI could potentially provide a competitive edge, but how can you apply it—ideally without compromising the customer experience?

To help small businesses figure out how to best weave AI into their operations, this article will highlight some of its current strengths and limitations.

What AI can do: data wrangling

Given its ability to handle unimaginable amounts of data, AI can perform many functions faster and better than humans can at virtually no cost. For now, these functions fall largely under the information gathering, documentation, and organization categories.

Digital sounding board

Tools like ChatGPT are somewhat like search engines. When you ask a question or issue a command, the app combines data sets from various sources in its response.

This makes it and other AI chatbots an excellent resource for researching and generating new ideas much faster than one might through traditional channels.

For example, a software developer may not use AI chatbots to generate code, but they might find it useful in generating insights through different searches and commands.


Taking notes during meetings can have the paradoxical effect of stealing your attention from what matters most—the other people in the conversation.

AI-powered note-taking apps alleviate the burden of transcribing long customer calls, webinars, and internal meetings. Many connect with your favorite video conferencing software (Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, etc.), and some don’t require your attendance to take notes.

Messaging framework

One of the earliest and most obvious use cases for AI chatbots is writing. But depending on who you ask, AI-assisted writing is either completely serviceable or decidedly terrible.

The truth lies somewhere in between these extremes. As The Atlantic notes, using AI to produce good writing will require “a new kind of literary curation” that people who know good writing will be best suited to perform.

In other words, you can’t expect something like ChatGPT to expertly manage your messaging. You’ll need a skilled human to steer that ship.

While AI tools can serve as a launching pad for topic ideas and basic copy, any customer-facing content (emails, blogs, etc.) a business creates still needs human intervention to ensure it’s engaging, relatable, and on brand.

What AI can’t do: nurture relationships

As artificial intelligence continues to evolve, the most complementary skills to nurture are those that won’t go extinct.

According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report (2023):

“Artificial intelligence is expected to be adopted by nearly 75% of surveyed companies and is expected to lead to high churn—with 50% of organizations expecting it to create job growth and 25% expecting it to create job losses.”

While the threat of AI rendering certain roles obsolete is a real one, there is an upside. By investing heavily in the skills and values that make us uniquely human, small businesses can maintain (and in some cases improve) the personal touch consumers expect from smaller brands.

Here are two core areas where AI is likely to fall short for the foreseeable future:

Creative, analytic, and strategic thinking

Creativity isn’t just about making things—it’s often about making things work. Though its data processing capabilities are unmatched, AI isn’t particularly skilled at “thinking” outside the box.

In practice, artificial intelligence thrives within narrow parameters that steer its algorithms towards logical objectives—and it gets all of its cues from us humans.

Here are a few ways to encourage strategic and creative thinking throughout the business:

  • Give team members time to explore: Self-directed learning and exploration make people more flexible and imaginative problem-solvers, which ultimately makes them better at their jobs.
  • Provide leadership opportunities: You may not be able to promote everyone, but you can give people opportunities to spearhead initiatives they care about. When people feel empowered to act on their own ideas, they’re less likely to see challenges as unconquerable blockers.
  • Encourage expertise: Whether you sell insurance or swimwear, every business has quirks and complexities that only a select few can navigate in a way that puts customers or fellow employees at ease. Encourage your in-house experts to share their knowledge in ways that benefit both them and the company while identifying and supporting experts-in-the-making.

Empathy-based social skills

Great customer service is usually high on empathy. It’s the secret sauce that enables the best support agents to determine how a customer feels before responding in an authentic and helpful way.

Without empathy, support interactions can feel strictly transactional, which is fine for simple self-service issues like password resets, but dangerous when an issue is sensitive or more complex.

Take UberEats, for example. If you’ve ever requested a refund in-app, you probably marveled at how easy it was to obtain. But if you’ve ever requested too many refunds (based on unknown criteria), you also know the pain of the automated refusal.

As a small business, you probably can’t afford to let AI take those kinds of liberties with loyal customers.

Instead, you’ll want to choose AI-enabled customer engagement tools built with empathy in mind. Then augment that convenience by always giving customers the option to access the real thing: live humans adept at communication and conflict resolution.

Self-efficacy skills

According to The Future of Jobs Report, self-efficacy skills such as resilience, flexibility, and agility; motivation and self-awareness; and curiosity and lifelong learning are among the most desirable skills in today’s employees, largely because workplace disruption is so common.

When the unexpected inevitably happens, having an adaptable team is key to overcoming obstacles with minimal friction.

Humans + AI = better together

Artificial intelligence is likely here to stay. As society prepares to adjust to the changes AI will eventually bring to the world of work, we recommend striving to maintain a balance between technological and personal approaches.

Remember: small businesses are built on relationships, something AI can’t approximate or begin to experience. Your customers don’t necessarily care about whether you’re automating tasks, but they care a great deal about how interacting with your brand makes them feel. That’s the real competitive advantage.