Artificial Intelligence Will Forever Change the Channels You Serve. Just Maybe Not Yet.

There’s no shortage of articles written that espouse how artificial intelligence (AI) is coming to the rescue of the [fill in the blank] channel. While that’s exciting news, a deeper look shows today’s reality doesn’t seem to be living up to the hype. Concrete examples of implementing AI in managed technology services channels like IT or pro A/V or office equipment just don’t seem to exist.

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Why then is everybody writing that AI is going to forever change the channel? Part of it is genuine enthusiasm for an important emerging technology. However, there’s also a misunderstanding of other technologies that provide AI-like results without being true artificial intelligence. Let’s take a step back and define what AI is as well as outline some use cases and verticals where it does serve quite well.

What is artificial intelligence? 

According to Britannica, artificial intelligence is “the ability of a digital computer or computer-controlled robot to perform tasks commonly associated with intelligent beings. The term is frequently applied to the project of developing systems endowed with the intellectual processes characteristic of humans, such as the ability to reason, discover meaning, generalize, or learn from past experience.”

A thinking machine could solve so many problems, right? So where is the disconnect? Why aren’t we seeing more AI in our channels? It could be one of three reasons, or a combination:

  • Not enough data: AI solutions need a large amount of data to be effective.
  • ROI simply doesn’t work: No ROI, no AI!
  • Other technologies are better suited than AI for the job: More on that later.

Big data is AI’s lifeblood

It’s been widely acknowledged that for artificial intelligence to be effective, it needs mountains upon mountains of good data to work with. More data gives AI more to learn from and improves its ability to make predictions and deliver useful insights. Does the office equipment channel have enough data? With millions of devices being monitored, for sure! How about the MSP and managed IT channels? Check! Millions of computers and servers are being monitored remotely every day. But the right amount of data isn’t enough to determine if AI will effectively revolutionize a channel. There is something even more important than data when it comes to the feasibility of it taking root in your channel: dollars and cents.

ROI or bust 

According to a 2021 report by Deloitte, a big reason channels aren’t adopting AI has to do with cost barriers and ROI:

“To many leaders, it comes as a surprise to learn that the investment needed to develop AI solutions cannot realize a return through the deployment of single, disconnected use cases, or even a handful.” 

Similar sentiments on the cost of AI and business adoption can be found at Tech Evaluate:

“The investments pouring into AI often come from large corporations that can greatly benefit from integrating AI into their current system. Small businesses are still often at a disadvantage with access to AI and the ability to use those tools to help them manage their day-to-day operations because of the costs associated with AI development.”

In the world of business, if there is not a tangible and healthy ROI, it doesn’t matter how “cool” ideas like AI are. They just aren’t meant to be. Think about the channel you serve. All the tools you currently use are designed to help you make more money, reduce costs, and/or drive a better customer experience. As much news as artificial intelligence is making, if there are more cost-effective and realistic ways to achieve your business goals, you’ll choose those.

Where AI does make sense?

According to CompTIA’s Artificial Intelligence Interest Group, the following are likely use cases for near-term adoption of AI:

  • Predictive sales/lead scoring
  • CRM/service delivery optimization
  • Chatbots/digital assistants
  • Cybersecurity threat detection
  • Marketing automation

Remember that AI today is still classified as an “emerging technology,” which means its general benefit to many channels is still some ways off. However, there are a limited number of channels where AI is making serious inroads with very specific use cases.

Security and alarm is seeing AI and machine learning being used for object and facial recognition. This makes sense. Every time an alarm is set off by motion, nine times out of 10 it’s a cat, dog, or passing car. Responding to all these false positives is expensive. If monitoring teams only respond to motion that is human and poses a threat, the cost of AI quickly shrinks in comparison to cost savings from avoiding all the false positives. If you are in the security and alarm channel, you’re probably already using AI-assisted video capture devices or investigating your options.

Healthcare is another area where AI makes a great deal of sense and can even be the difference between life and death. AI is currently making the news in healthcare for its ability to detect cancer, blood diseases and other life-threatening conditions earlier, increasing chances of recovery. Aside from the obvious human benefits here, this also makes sense from an ROI perspective. Prevention and early detection are far more cost-effective than late-stage treatments. Advanced healthcare treatments for cancer and cancer medications are extremely expensive, and the cost of AI solutions to prevent them can have huge returns.

Cybersecurity seems a natural fit, but is it? Probably not for the SMB channel. Again, it’s all about ROI. Small companies simply don’t have the funds to pay for AI-enhanced security solutions as the ROI is too hard to muster. Enterprise-level companies that can afford AI-enabled security solutions are a different story, and there are many examples of large companies that are putting this technology into action. It seems there is a digital divide when it comes to company size and SMBs simply don’t make the ROI cut.

If AI isn’t the answer for my channel yet, what is?

The lack of available (or affordable) AI options in different technology channels doesn’t mean there aren’t intelligent technology solutions available to help you better serve your customers.

OCR (optical character recognition)
OCR has been around for a long time. Its first use was in 1914 by a machine that read characters and converted them into telegraph code for use by blind people. The technology has come a long way since then and currently is used to convert optical data into text data that can be uploaded and managed in databases. Banks use it, as do many leading document management and scanning providers. There are some scholarly articles on AI for more advanced OCR that requires less rigid formatting upon setup, but again, the cost to ROI ratio simply doesn’t exist to make this feasible yet.

Big data analytics
Big data is exactly what it sounds like: BIG repositories of data collected over time by RMM (remote monitoring and management) providers and others. The managed print industry has been monitoring millions of printers for over a decade. Analyzing this data can help customers in the office equipment channel better select the right equipment for their needs, for example, by accurately helping a service provider understand how much a piece of print/copy equipment will cost to service over its life. If you belong to a channel that has easy access to large amounts of customer and connected-device data, analytics could be exactly what you need to better your solutions for your customers at an affordable cost.

Policies and rules
Rules and policies often provide what you need to better serve your customers. In the education vertical, for example, print, copy, and scanning are all used to help facilitate learning for students. Software-driven policies and rules can help limit the amount students and staff can print in color to save valuable dollars that can be redirected to other purposes. Some go as far as to have students pay for their pages and limit their printing once paid amounts disappear. Policies and rules management via software does more than just save money. The same solutions can also help improve information security by having electronic policies that track and account for the type of information being printed, copied, or scanned. It’s not AI, but it’s still very smart.

Business process automation
No matter which channel you serve, business process automation will make a big difference in running your business and customer-driven activities more effectively, no AI required. BPA software can automate many common practices such as sales funnel management, service technician dispatch/tracking, invoicing, accounting, and other key functions of your business. BPAs can also dramatically decrease errors created by more manual processes, leading to a better customer experience and more time to focus on growing the business.

This isn’t to say AI doesn’t have a bright future in the channel you serve. Down the road, it likely will provide profound business benefits with tangible ROI. But doing business in the here and now doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace readily available smart technologies to drive efficiencies and improve customer satisfaction today. Elon Musk might have his eye on Mars, but he’s making use of the rockets he has right now to get astronauts and payloads to where they can go today. We can keep an eye on the future without ignoring the many great solutions available to help us right now.  

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West McDonald is VP of Business Development, Tigerpaw Software.

West McDonald

West McDonald is VP of Business Development, Tigerpaw Software.