Thursday, January 18, 2024

A Five-Step AI Strategy for SMB IT Professionals

We get questions . . .

Someone in my Small Biz Thoughts Technology Community asked me about how to make money with AI in the SMB market. And while this is new technology, I would recommend the same basic five-step process I always use with all all technologies and all major technical challenges.

I hope this blog post helps you with the current challenge of AI as a new technology. But, more importantly, I hope this approach helps with other technologies as well. I have used it about a dozen times in the last thirty years, and it has served me well.

Step One: Educate yourself and your team

You need to "get your arms around" the new technology. If not you, someone on your team must become the AI expert, the person who knows more about AI than everybody else. Ideally, your in-house expert will be able to explaining it to other people and making sure that your team knows how to talk about this new technology in human terms. Right now, AI is at the peak of its hype cycle. That means that many people are just talking about it and talking about it, and nobody actually knows what it is. 

I love the Gartner web site's current example of the hype cycle. Their current example is . . . AI! See

You've seen this with cloud technology, with remote work, and with hosted services of all kinds. If you're old enough, you may have seen it with the Y2K rollover and with the launch of the public Internet itself. The beauty of the hype cycle is that there's money to be made for consultants well before there's money to be made by everyone else. Why? Because we figure out the solutions and start to teach  the rest of the world.

It's always your job to help small businesses make wise decisions about their technology. Sometimes, that also involves educating them. But before you can teach, you need to learn. Where does AI make business sense inside small businesses? Where can it help them automate things? Where can it help them to be more successful? 

Most MSPs and ITSPs today have grown up selling bundled services. (I taught some folks how to do that, so I can take some of the blame.) But with emerging technologies, we need to get back to being true consultants

A true a consultant goes into a prospect's office, finds out what they do, figures out what their problems are, and designs a solution that helps them to make money. Or save money. Or improve their services. Or simply do something bigger, better, or faster than they've ever done it before. 

True consultants create very bespoke, customizable solutions. You should NOT go to every client and simply say, "buy Copilot." That won't work today. The products are not mature enough, and the clients are not educated enough. Microsoft would love for you to take that path. But you should never let vendors determine what your business model is. Instead, figure out what the client really needs and build a business around that. 

Once someone on you staff (perhaps you) has learned about AI, they need to educate the rest of your team. Perhaps everyone will go take some different classes and come back to share the knowledge with everyone else.

Step Two: Implement AI inside your own company 

I've never liked the term, "Eat your own dog food," but I've never created dog food. I don't really understand where that term came from. The message is: Used what you sell!

Whether it's Microsoft Copilot, Adobe Cloud products, AI "Companions" if various products, AI note-takers, or even decision-making tools, implement something. Implement commercially-available AI in your business and see where it's actually useful and where it's not. Remember where you are in the hype cycle! We're either at or near the peak. That means you can look forward to the Trough of Disillusionment this year.

Right now, there are all kinds of AI offerings that promise the moon. YOU need to filter out the useful from the useless. Your clients will turn to you and ask what they should do. You can either stare blankly or tell them about your real-world experience. That means you have to have real-world experience. This might cost some money. Consider it an investment in your future.

Steps One and Two will allow you to gather examples of good AI technologies and not-so-good technologies. You'll also collect stories about what exceeded your expectations and what let you down. You might have a story of being surprised with the results. Whatever your stories, collect them all for step five.

The really good news about AI is that some very good, useful examples of productivity enhancements are coming to market. Some will pan out and some won't, but clients don't need to be convinced when they are willing to go find and install these themselves. Your challenge for some technologies is to keep up with your clients. You should be leading them, not following them!

Internal use of a variety of new AI technologies will also help you create policies that you can use to apply future technologies to your clients. For example, many AI tools can analyze large amounts of data very quickly. But no one should just point AI at a data share and let it run wild. "Data" is just a techie term for the critical information inside a business. It might be salary information, client information, security information, historical business records, or company secrets.

Most companies of all sizes are horrible at isolating sensitive information from all the other information. This includes small businesses and even IT consultants. So you need to create policies and procedures around security, data management, and privacy policies. I don't think, "We mis-used artificial intelligence" is going to be a good defense. 

Installing and using AI-powered technology will help you see the challenges and opportunities you will bring to your clients when the time comes. You'll learn all the juicy details you can then use to teach your clients.

Step Three: Train your clients

Create a basic training or two. I recommend creating a basic forty-minute training and an even more basic twenty-minute training. Both should elicit lots of questions. 

Early on, cover topics like:

  •  What is AI? With examples.
  •  What is not AI?
  •  What are the dangers of AI?
  •  What kind of rules do we need to have in place?
  •  What are the promises of AI?
  •  Example of how AI solves real-world problems in a small business.

On the topic of "dangers" and rules, you really need to be clear about potential down-sides. Artificial Intelligence does not know right and wrong. It doesn't understand privacy policies, discrimination, security, compliance, copyright law, or the subtleties of HR regulations. Mis-use of AI will result in lots of lawsuits before the year is over. This will help define the limits of liability for various actions taken by humans and businesses in the name of AI.

In the meantime, you need to make sure your clients understand that they need to take these things seriously. They need to embrace the productivity and accept the responsibility of using this technology. YOU can help them with that. 

Everybody needs to know that AI is like every other technology in one important way. You are responsible for using it responsibly. When you go to market and you talk about AI, you have make sure people understand. They need a data management policy. I hope everybody's already got a privacy policy and that you're helping your clients develop privacy policies. Now you need to help them develop data management policies regarding AI.

Believe it or not, you can cover the dangers and warnings pretty quickly in a few slides, but you need to do it. Then you can focus on the productivity opportunities. What are some basic practical uses? Where is AI already inside of their business? 

Training your clients is always a great idea. I highly encourage you to put one hour of onsite client training into your more-expensive managed service tiers. Most clients won't take advantage of it. But those who do will welcome you into their office with open arms. They know they're not being charged for the hour. But, more importantly, you increase you non-technical relationship with the client. You get to know their people a little better. They get to know you. It's relaxed. It's comfortable. And it establishes you as the expert - so the client doesn't have to turn to someone else for their AI knowledge.

Step Four: Sell AI solutions 

This is the selling part of "Use what you sell." If you are a Microsoft cloud service provider (CSP), you should be able to add these to your bundles. You should be able to figure out how to sell this as an add-on and figure out how it fits in your bigger, bigger picture. So make sure that you've got some system for reselling that you understand how you're doing this. That might require some training up on licensing and so forth and so on, make sure that you go through that process.

Note that the Microsoft offering just announced is very expensive. Why do I say that? Well, it's more than most people are paying for Office 365. It's more than the entire Adobe Creative Cloud suite. It's more than most other currently-available AI tools. Copilot is $360/year for the business edition. The home edition, Copilot Pro [not a typo], is $240/year. 

As usual, the Microsoft licensing is a confusing work in progress. Don't be surprised if some subset is named "Intune" for a week or so in 2024. [set SnideComments=off]

My point is: You should also look to see which other AI-powered technologies you can be using, learning, and selling. You may also be allowed to make higher profits on other technologies. Stay tuned and keep your eyes open. Microsoft has left a large opening for services to enter the market cheaper than their offering. Remember what I said above: YOU need to help your clients make good decisions around this technology.

The good news for your clients, in the short run, is that you are climbing the learning curve now. You are taking the classes. You are learning the best tools and the quick tips. So when they buy from you, they will be buying from someone who has actually deployed this technology and can help them when they need it.

Step Five: Make yourself the local expert

This is a bit of an extension of Step three. Once you have a solid training figured out, you will have heard a lot of questions. You will build the answers into your revised presentation. Or you will be ready to give the answer live.

So take your training public! This is one of the absolute best ways to grow your business. Remember your 20-minute and 40-minute presentations? Those are great for chamber luncheons, Rotary clubs, Kiwanis clubs, networking meetings, and even internal business trainings. Offer to give that training to every group and business Meetup in your city. Give it again and again and again. Every one of those people will leave the meeting knowing that YOU are the person to talk to about AI.

Pro Tip: Always have a handout. Not an advertisement. A handout with tips and tricks. It might list the best YouTube channels to watch on AI for small business. Or the ten most successful prompts for generative AI. Or books, blogs, and short-cuts. If you drill down into a specific brand of AI tool, create a tip sheet for that.

Just remember: It might not be an ad, but this handout does have your logo, your web site, and your email address. It does have your company name. And it *might* just end up on the bulletin boards for ten percent of every group you talk to. Maybe it just gets you another opportunity to present, but maybe it gets you a request to come in and talk about implementing AI in a prospect's office.

I often use the line that "some new technology" is being invented right now. Someone will be the first expert at that. And five years from now, that technology will begin to fade. But in that window, lots of experts will emerge. And someone will become the premier expert in the whole world before that technology fades. It happens every day.

YOU can be one of those experts. That's the real beauty of being an IT consultant. You can master the next great technology and become a world expert - just as easily as anyone else. You just need to choose your technology and start teaching yourself.

And there's always a new technology. So you get kick-start that pathway to success any day you want. Just pick a technology and go. 

AI is one option you can pick today.

Comments and feedback welcome.


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