Cash flow problems have proven to be one of the most prevalent issues faced by South African small and medium-sized business (SMB) owners in 2017, according to a recent report.

However, while the South African government and banks can do more to promote free business education programmes and investment opportunities, business consultants, Sage South Africa, have revealed there is more business owners can do to tackle this problem themselves.

One of the primary reasons for a business having poor cash flow is late or non-payments for services, with South African SMBs spending over 10 hours a month dealing with debt recovery.

Chasing late payments is just one of the many tasks business leaders find themselves overwhelmed with, with SMBs also complaining that admin takes too much of their time and distracts them from being able to stabilise and grow their enterprise.

Yet, as technology advances, and with South Africa quickly establishing itself as a global leader in developing AI-enabled (artificial intelligence) applications, there are an increasing number of available options that can automate traditionally time-consuming tasks.

“Use technology! Digital tools can save a lot of time, some are free, some you have to pay for, but it’s worth a small outlay upfront so that you get those few extra hours a month to spend on money-making activities,” advises Sage.

The growing trend in machine learning software is purpose-built applications designed to do a single or series of simple tasks, repetitively and quickly. This includes automating invoice delivery, meaning imbursement for goods and services can be delivered timelier and more efficiently.

“[Admin will become] increasingly less tedious over time” and “less about entering data and more about assisting with high-level decisions,” says Levi Morehouse, founder and CEO of automated accountancy firm, Ceterus.

Not only are invoices created automatically based on the customer’s specific order, but machine learning is also making it easier for customers to complete their payments by integrating the applications with banking software, offering a choice of convenient cloud-based compensation options. Currently, messaging giants, WeChat and WhatsApp, are in a race to bring payment services within their apps to Africa, although Nigerian-based Kudi.ai have already launched a similar service.

AI-enabled applications are also being used in other areas to help SMBs complete their day-to-day duties, including customer service. The rise of chatbots – AI-powered messaging services which communicate with clients using human-like responses – are fast becoming the primary means for businesses to offer effective, highly available customer service.

From providing recommendations for how to fix products, to helping integrate third-party applications so users can enjoy one fluid experience as though speaking with a human, chatbots enable SMBs to tackle the problem of providing 24-hour, personal customer service in an internet age.

With numerous start-ups competing with long-established software development companies, purpose-built machine learning applications are being rapidly and made available at affordable prices. SMB owners will benefit not only from improved cash flow, but automation will offer them more time to dedicate to growing their business.