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Telling stories with data

There is a lot of stuff around these days about telling stories with data. I have been a big fan of the late and great Hans Rosling for years. His approach to telling upbeat stories about the progress of humanity with data is inspiring. The Gapminder foundation that he set up has some great tools that you can spend many an hour playing with, particularly if you a a bit of a statistics geek. If you have never seen Hans in action check out this 2006 TED talk.

Hans died earlier this year is a great loss to the world. Recently I attended a Master Class on Data Visualisation hosted by the Grauniad in Cambridge. Laura Knight gave a breezy and enthusiastic talk about the dos and don'ts of data visualisation.

For me one of the key takeaways was some basic common sense. Asking your self some simple questions is the place to start. Who is your audience? What's the story you want to tell? What is the most effective way to tell it? Then follow one of Einstein's rules: make everything as simple as it can be, but no simpler. This last one also appears to be the basic philosophy of one of the doyens of data presentation, the artist and statistician Edward Tufte.

Motivating management teams with business data is pretty straightforward, motivating sales teams to collect that data less so. CEOs like to have a dashboard to see how the business is doing. How was the last quarter performance and how does the next quarter's forecast look? At the other end of the sales data pipeline you want your sales team to gather and record the data that makes the CEO dashboard possible. You know you have done something right when a young sales rep asks you how to create a report to show how good his recent performance is. He knows the data he needs is recorded on the system but wants to be able to wave it in front of his boss.

This happened during a recent engagement when I had been working with a client who had a moribund saleforce.com implementation that required re-invigorating. Prior to our involvement the client had been using salesforce.com to half-manage their sales activities. The not-so-old adage "if it ain't on salesforce, it doesn't exist" definitely did not apply. The sales teams thought it was just a pain in the neck to record stuff that was only any use to management and the management knew that they could not really trust that what was recorded was a true reflection of the sales pipeline.

So we focussed on the two ends of the problem.

  1. What data did the management team need to steer the business and report to investors?
  2. How do we make that data useful to the sales team to manage their pipeline?

Explaining the benefits of the dashboard to a CEO is easy. Explaining why the sales team needs to maintain good records of the prospects and opportunities is not so difficult but changing their behaviour is more of a challenge. There must be something in it for them. So we made sure that they could see their own success in the numbers. We created team dashboards with leaderboard type components which showed them how their performance compared. This is a big motivator for any good sales person.

There is no magic in this, just the application of experience and common sense and knowledge of what's possible with your system of record (in this case salesforce.com). We focussed on having a simple sales process with a small number of meaningful stages. We captured enough information to satisfy the CEO's needs but not so much that it got in the way of the sales team. The design of the analytics is focussed around the end user. A dashboard for the CEO is focussed around overall outcomes and business performance, for a Sales Manager they need to see who is performing and who is struggling. The other key lesson is that you won't get it right first time. Build it, try it, refine it. With today's analytics tools it's quick and easy to iterate.

If you need some help in re-energising your salesforce.com analytics get in touch.

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