How AI can boost growth and improve productivity for SMEs

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the true backbone of the UK economy. This community of accountants, tailors, corner shops and everything in between make up over 99% of all businesses.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the true backbone of the UK economy. This community of accountants, tailors, corner shops and everything in between make up over 99% of all businesses.

Yet even with AI dominating news headlines and dinner time conversations in 2023, most SMEs have hardly scratched the surface of its potential. In fact, just 20% of them have started to use AI, according to research from Slack’s State of Work Report.

Chris Mills, Head of Customer Success, EMEA at Slack looks at what SMEs can do to unlock the potential AI holds for them.

For AI to learn, it needs a business’s dictionary

AI is only as good as the data it’s fed, so for any business it needs to be deployed in a trusted environment – where the data it’s drawing on will be relevant. And in smaller businesses, this is critical. That’s because SMEs often operate in niches, serving a highly-specific clientele and delivering a bespoke service. They need AI that can learn – and then speak – their language.

For AI to do this, it needs the right information and context to learn from. The perfect starting place is a productivity platform that already houses all the communication taking place within the company. This can act as a dictionary that leading AI tools like Chat GPT or Anthropic’s Claude can use to understand the nuances of the business, and then start providing insights, summaries and suggestions. Even better, getting AI set up requires minimal input or investment from busy small business leaders – with communications housed in a productivity platform, they’re already good to go.

For example, imagine a small business owner in Birmingham. Let’s call him Saad. He’s the owner of a growing florist chain and it’s the summer wedding season – meaning orders are increasing. All of his delivery drivers are out, and one of his local managers is on a well-earned holiday. Saad hasn’t been across all the details and doesn’t have anyone to ask, but now he needs to get up to speed quickly.

Thankfully, with all communication kept in one productivity platform, Saad can quickly pick up with his AI helper for an update on the status of a key delivery, and receive a clear list of the stock being sent out, without needing to go searching for it in inboxes. Saad can stay on top of the work, and every happy couple receives their delivery.

By using a productivity platform and AI, Saad has been able to find information faster, solve customer challenges and – importantly – avoid interrupting his store manager’s holiday. It’s just one example of the myriad ways small businesses investing in AI can oil the cogs and keep things running efficiently – all while delighting customers.

Better communication for fast-paced teams

“What were our 10 biggest orders over the past six months, and year-on-year how has the spending volume and frequency of purchase changed amongst those customers?” With AI as their sidekick, leaders like Saad can seamlessly surface business-critical insights with just a quick message. However, it’s not only solo work that benefits from using a productivity platform enhanced with AI, but team collaboration.

This is important, because being productive at a small business often means wearing many hats. Saad might be a CEO one day, an operations manager the next and a shop assistant at the weekend. Hopping between those roles requires keeping on top of several streams of communication with different teams involved.

If a business is relying on a hodge-podge of emails, social platforms, texts and more to communicate, it quickly becomes hard to keep track of what is actually going on. That’s why it’s key to invest in a tool like Slack – not only so people can ask for a quick update from their AI partner, but to also keep communication organised.

This was the main challenge Stephanie Sollers faced when her company Virtual Dining Concepts (VDC) – a business that helps organisations in the hospitality sector unlock additional revenue streams – grew significantly during its first few years. With 50 employees working with over 2,500 restaurants, clear, efficient and timeline communication was crucial in ensuring the organisation’s ongoing success. That’s why Stephanie transitioned her business to Slack. With a powerful productivity platform as its foundation for collaboration, VDC is able to stay nimble, innovative and efficient, even as it grows into a much larger company.

The same would be true for Saad, who uses separate channels on his productivity platform to discuss deliveries, shop management, and incoming orders across teams. In each channel he can engage with the people he needs, and teammates can easily search through messages and share knowledge as required, too. He can even have dedicated channels with trusted external parties, like key suppliers, to coordinate activities and move work forward faster.

To accelerate work even further, Saad might even use automations within these channels, so that, for example, when a new order is made on the website, it automatically shares the details in a specific sales channel, where the local florist can pick it up. On average, SMEs that implement automations like these are already saving 3.1 hours every week – time that can be reinvested in growing and further optimising the business.

A future of AI-empowered business

The UK’s small business sector is full of leaders like Saad and Stephanie: dedicated, passionate and providing a fantastic service to customers. Yet many lag behind when it comes to taking advantage of advances in technology. As the AI era kicks off in earnest, it’s time for those small businesses to claim the productivity wins that come with AI-enabled platforms: faster communication, stronger problem solving and happier customers. And all of this leads to a more productive, efficient and profitable business.

It all starts with investing in a platform that keeps everyone in the business – and the information they’re sharing – connected. From that foundation, AI can accelerate decisions and updates, while growing teams can collaborate seamlessly in one space. And with these tools at hand, small business leaders like Saad can move forward while making a bigger impact than ever.

Start using Slack for free and fuel your company’s growth by visiting