Nothing beats getting stuck in the slow-lane for the self-checkout machine—or in the endless loop of an automated phone system that keeps disconnecting you—to underline how much more convenient interacting with a real person can be.
While automation saves businesses time and money, it also inflicts very real frustrations on everyday people who are forced to do the work once done by employees of the companies they patronize. One recent survey found that about 70% of consumers said they’d rather talk with a human customer service representative than a digital service rep or chatbot.
That poses a big opportunity for one-person businesses and other very small firms where the owners are still willing to interact with customers every day. Many consumers and businesses still value what real humans can bring to the table and some will pay for it, even when it costs more. Leaning into the fact that there’s a live person behind it all can be an incredible competitive advantage.
Recently, Dan Faggella, founder of Emerj Artificial Intelligence Research, spoke with me about how one-person businesses can make the most of today’s environment. He has experience building a one-person business himself, having created a million-dollar, one-person e-commerce store called Science of Skill, aimed at martial artists, which he sold for more than $1 million.
Here are some tips, based on his insights.
Break free of routine tasks
Many business owners know they should not spend time on work that could be automated but do it anyway. Sometimes this work is high-paying for the time being or doesn’t take much time so they rationalize fitting it in. By dramatically refocusing your energy on services where human involvement and social intelligence are mandatory, you can charge more and ensure more staying power for your business.
Let’s say you’re a consultant who helps customers make predictions based on when inventory should be restocked, using their sales data. That is something that software could be programmed to do. But if you also help clients manage vendor relationships, which requires emotional intelligence, that’s not something a robot can replace.
“If you have to be the one to talk someone into giving you something two weeks earlier or $50,000 off your next shipment, you have to leverage interpersonal skills,” says Faggella. “You’re not just crunching data. You’re handling high-value, complicated human relationships. There is no machine that can make that phone call.”
Put information in context
While tech tools can be used to gather data, they aren’t as good as humans at showing where it fits into a broader body of information, according to Faggella.
Let’s say you’re an auditor. If your work depends on gathering the same information consistently, you work with data in a similar way month after month, and your work results in predictable outputs, your role is probably very automatable, says Faggella. “I don’t care if you make $85,000—you probably should be scared,” he says.
That doesn’t mean you need to change your industry to save your business. What a software program can’t do is put data in context and interpret it as well as a human can.
“If, for instance, you audit companies within a specific sector like banking and leverage what you know about that sector, all of a sudden it will be a lot harder for a machine to do what you do,” says Faggella.
This is an area where seasoned pros or people with deep subject matter expertise have a real edge.
Connect on a human level
The more you can show you empathize with your customers and find ways to connect with them, the more of an advantage you will have in many fields.
“If you’re in sales, you need to be really tuned in and connect, or you won’t deliver any value,” says Faggella. Similarly, if you offer nursing services to the elderly and the patients don’t feel cared for, your business will be short-lived.
“If you can layer connection into your job, it’s extremely hard for machines to model,” says Faggella.
Become a linchpin
Although there are many excellent project management tools available, relying on software alone to manage people isn’t easy.
That’s where human beings can stand out. Say you run a team of sales reps for a client that has outsourced the sales function to your company. You may be able to keep track of your team’s current assignments and results using software, but you won’t be able to make the most of the team’s resources that way.
“If I run a sales team I need coordination,” says Faggella. “I need to understand the sales people’s different personalities and goals, different life contexts and different tools they need to use.”
“That is not something AI can do,” he says. Fortunately, that spells opportunity for many a small business.