SMBs & AI: Takeaways from Mary Nelson's HubSpot INBOUND Event

Emily GregorLast updated on January 2, 2024
8 min

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Good conversations are hard to come by right now. This is according to Aircall’s AI Index, which surveyed the attitudes of over 3,500 employees from small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) worldwide, and found that 63% are struggling to have meaningful customer conversations

This is a major problem—especially when SMBs have a significant opportunity to hone their competitive edge by having more impactful customer interactions and personalizing their customer experience. When faced with stiff competition from larger organizations, SMBs might be smaller players, but they can make a big impact. 

Today, SMBs make up 90% of businesses around the globe, and it has long been Aircall’s mission to empower them to grow efficiently, secure long-lasting business success, and drive employee and customer retention.

That all sounds well and good, but is it really possible? Well, as Aircall Chief Customer Officer Mary Nelson explained onstage at HubSpot INBOUND, yes it is—with the help of AI.

The Future of AI is INBOUND

From September 5 to 8 2023, the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center was transformed into a hive of creativity, innovation, and culture where tens of thousands of attendees shared their ideas and work to propel the industry forward.

Mary outlined her vision for the SMBs of tomorrow—an idea that glues together the transformative power of AI we’re seeing across our day-to-day—and answered a very simple question: Why are businesses today even using AI?

The SMBs of the future face some familiar challenges—ones such as high call volume, limited resources and time, too much admin, and high customer expectations. But the payoff from efficient growth and effective AI implementation has meant this future is more utopia than dystopia, with qualities that include:

  • Greater efficiency

  • Improved customer interactions

  • Customer and employee satisfaction

  • More coaching opportunities

  • The right setting for employees to thrive

To make this future a reality, Aircall is empowering SMBs to have more personalized conversations. To understand the how, why, and what, we sat down with Mary Nelson to learn more. Please note that this interview has been condensed for clarity. 

A Q&A with Aircall Chief Customer Officer Mary Nelson

Q: Why is this topic (creating more meaningful conversations) so important to you?

Mary Nelson (MN): Most of us know firsthand how powerful a good conversation is. The pandemic reinforced this power, and despite the convenience of a text or a DM—nothing beats two people talking. This applies to businesses too, and customers everywhere today want a range of omnichannel experiences—but included in there needs to be a conversation with a real person. 

I’ve always been inspired by what these kinds of conversations can deliver to people. Beyond looking at things in black and white and thinking about revenue and success, I want to imagine the impact a meaningful conversation can have on both the customer and the employee on the phone. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I believe customer sales and support can be better—and that SMBs and AI can form a perfect partnership.

Q: You referenced The Jetsons in your talk—do you think the future of SMBs can be a reality sooner rather than later?

MN: I was obsessed with The Jetsons as a kid. I wanted my own jet pack and spaceship. I wanted a dog like Astro. And yeah, I wanted a machine that got me up and dressed in the morning like it does for George—scratch that; I still do!

But when I referenced it in my talk, it was because I think we’re used to thinking of the future as something far-off and unattainable—something made up of these crazy, inconceivable things. But if SMBs are to survive, then their future needs to start sooner rather than later. And I believe that AI can help them do that. 

Q: What is Aircall doing to change how conversations are happening?

MN: It’s a cliché, but what isn’t Aircall doing? Next year it will have been 10 years since Aircall started, and in that time, the company has put everything into creating more meaningful conversations. From envisaging a high-quality cloud-based phone system to giving sales and customer support teams the tools to turn hours of busywork into opportunities to connect with someone—something that is set to continue with the launch of the AI Starter Plan on October 5.

A major part of my career, even before Aircall, was helping customers achieve their desired outcomes. That’s what brought me here, and as much as what got me through the door impressed me—I’m even more excited about what’s coming soon. Spoiler: It’s not jet packs!

Q: Besides tools, what do sales and customer support teams need to bring to the table? Is it about a mindset shift?

MN: It’s 100% about a mindset shift. And not just for execs, juniors, and managers—but C-Suite leaders too. Change starts from the top, and if customer-facing teams are excited about AI, it won’t matter if those who control the budget are on the fence. 

The benefits of education aren’t incompatible with hierarchy—and leaders need to embrace this opportunity to learn and get to grips with what AI can do for them and their business. This means doing research, getting hands-on, talking to their people, and optimizing as they go. 

Q: You shared some research during your talk. If you had to focus on one stat, what would it be and why?

MN: I think the one that shocked me the most was that, on average, SMB employees are spending 20.8 hours a week on busy work and admin. This is a crazy amount of time to be spending on things like listening to voicemails, meetings, writing up notes, etc. Just think of how this time could be better used—and not just in a work capacity, but in returning some downtime for people to spend with their families, friends, or TVs!

Q: What, beyond AI, makes you excited for the future of SMBs?

MN: You mean beyond AI, flying cars, and robot butlers? I’d have to say that I’m excited for how the little guy can perform like the big guy. We all love an underdog story, right? And AI can level the playing field for small to medium-sized businesses to a degree where company size and spend don’t monopolize the market. This isn’t just about a fair fight—it’s about putting more choices out there. Something that ultimately the customers of our customers will be thankful for.

Q: If you had one piece of advice to share for leaders of growing businesses, what would it be?

MN: I’d first ask how they’re growing. And if they said anything but efficiently, I’d refuse to give up my top tips! I’m kidding—but seriously, efficient and sustainable growth is so important right now, and businesses need to realize that.

Then when it comes to one piece of advice, I’d say think hard about your AI adoption strategy. You need to remain agile, and that means bringing AI into your existing tech stack holistically and finding the solution that ticks all the boxes for you.

Mary Nelson’s AI Action Plan

At the end of her talk, Mary shared an action plan for SMBs to follow when adopting AI. Alongside this, we encourage businesses to use Aircall’s AI Action Plan templates—a crucial resource for every stage of AI adoption, from choosing a solution to onboarding and measuring success.

1. Set objectives

But don’t reinvent the wheel. Going round and round in your head should be a new mantra: enablement, not replacement. So when implementing AI, think about your customer experience and then think about how AI can improve it. The last thing you want is to clumsily drop AI into the cogs of your business and end up bringing something like personalization to a halt.

2. Experiment

This might raise a few eyebrows, but there’s nothing wrong with getting your hands dirty and seeing what AI is out there. This is a new technology, so let’s kick the tires a bit—whether it’s ChatGPT, Google Bard, or something else. Just make sure you’re not committing your business to anything or bringing any data (your own, your business’s, and your customers’) in at this stage.

3. Implement

Once you have experimented a bit and have a better sense of how AI works in your business, it's time to implement. Develop your project plan, the partners, your testing approach, etc., and fine-tune when needed.

4. Educate and train

This isn’t just about changing the mindset around AI but teaching responsibility so that employees are using it productively and not endangering company data. As you roll out your AI plan, make sure your teams know how it’s being used and how it fits with corporate strategy.

5. Measure and optimize

This process will take some time, especially when AI technology is evolving every day. You need to make sure you’re keeping pace with it by checking in on your results and your employees, and ensuring you’re optimizing your implementation when it’s needed.

Move Toward Your Future Today

Among the concerns and optimism and the tools and strategy, it can be easy to forget why we’re talking about AI so much. But this isn’t a flavor of the week—it’s already proven itself to be a transformative technology that can change how we work for the better. 

Most importantly of all, in what is a massive game changer for SMBs, AI can help us return meaning to conversations. This is a tale about the rise of the machines. But, as Mary Nelson explained at HubSpot INBOUND, the big twist is that it will help humans do more human work.

Now, in the spirit of Inbound 2023, we should collectively use AI to propel our work forward and get started as soon as possible.

Request a demo of Aircall's AI powered features!

Published on September 13, 2023.

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