In the Trenches: Artificial Intelligence

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Any small business person who has collected sales tax, paid payroll tax, made quarterly personal income tax payments for several decades and managed to stay out of trouble with everyone has maintained a considerable level of responsibility and accountability, that’s for sure.

But in today’s business environment, “accountability” is more and more something to be demanded, required and even measured by larger companies in their relationships with suppliers and contractors like us.

Of course this is not unreasonable, as a reliable supply chain is critical to any company meeting its own deadlines and commitments. Some companies, however, have found ways of driving small guys like me crazy in their goal to manage contractors, and have written software almost for that very purpose.

Once a purchase order is written, a time clock begins and — nearing the deadline — a warning email will go out, and if the deadline is missed, other emails arrive requiring responses as to why expectations have not been met, showing our “failure to meet expectations,” including warnings of being taken off their approved vendor lists and the like.

The only thing is their own people may have changed the job, or even shifted the deadline, but the all-knowing computer and its software may not have been informed of these developments and continues its electronic report card undeterred.

We have two companies, and I may not always know every ongoing project and its associated deadline, but certainly feel like I have to take time out to get to the bottom of things like this once those demanding emails begin. It’s often a waste of time.

I supposed millennials might work their whole lives dealing with real supervisors and electronic ones interchangeably, but I’m still old school and don’t really care one bit for these new tools of business management. But, I’m sure as time goes on, this will become the new normal, because someone out there is always writing a software program to do a previously human job, with irritating punctuality and persistence.

Another type of computer generated communication is the robo calls businesses get almost daily. A great deal of ours are from companies wanting to lend us money. I suppose they check how long a company has been in business, their Dunn & Bradstreet rating and who knows what else to determine if someone is a suitable credit risk first. But with plenty of money out there to lend, they’re looking for borrowers.

And so the call comes: “Hello, this is Julie from such and such capital” the pleasant and cheerful voice begins, and it seems like a real person is on the line when she says, “and how are you doing today?” Automatically I respond, “fine,” and the conversation continues.

“I’m glad to hear that, and just called to let you know that your business is pre-approved for a credit line of up to $100.000. I bet you have lots of business needs you could use that money for, right?”

Any response from me will get a comment like, “Well, let me get my supervisor on the line and he can explain the favorable terms we have for you, and get this funding coming your way in as little as two days.”

Of course, all the time I’ve been talking to a computer, and quickly feel foolish for doing so. Then one day when I received a call like that, and was cheerfully asked how I was feeling, just to throw the “Julie software” a curve, I told her I felt “absolutely terrible.”

And to my shock, a consoling voice sympathetically replied, “Well I hate to hear that… but, I have some really good news for you. Your company has been approved for a business line of credit of up to….”

Oh good grief. Artificial-intelligence-Julie had outsmarted this old sign guy, and kept me in a conversation with a computer one more time. Like I said, it’s the new normal I suppose, and it sure is annoying. But, if they want to loan me some money, “Julie” is going to have to march her little self down to the sign shop and shake my hand, and I’m not expecting that anytime soon.

Well, I hope your sign shop is busy, your phone callers are human, and most of them are paying customers. Have a great month.

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Rick Williams

Rick Williams owns Rick's Sign Company, a commercial sign shop in Longview, Texas. He has been in the sign industry since 1973 and has been a contributing editor to Sign Business since 1986. Contact Rick via e-mail at ricksignco@aol.com.

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