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How to use data and analytics to navigate business turbulence

Joe Thomas Profile picture for user Joe Thomas December 1, 2020
Flying blind isn't an option for companies, writes Joe Thomas of FinancialForce - instead, use data analysis to reallocate resources and navigate turbulence

Hand of aviation controller navigating screen © MR.Yanukit - Shutterstock
(© MR.Yanukit - Shutterstock)

The ability to quickly gather pertinent facts and data points about your business is key to making informed decisions and overcoming any crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic we're going through now.

This is a period of great anxiety and uncertainty for businesses around the globe. But by tapping into reliable data and real-time analytics, organizations can take action to improve their situation. They can quickly course-correct if they see their business going sideways, reallocate resources to areas where they'll do the most good, and make effective decisions to survive and succeed in these challenging times.

Periods of crisis will always happen, whether it's a terrorist attack, a global conflict, a market crash or another pandemic. But humans adjust. It's what we do best. We usually bounce back better and stronger than before-and this time should not be any different.

Here are four ways that the effective use of data and analytics can help your company as you enter the recovery phase and plan a brighter future.

1. Fly by data

Years ago, it was possible to fly your business by hand, because information arrived at a manageable pace. You could take in data, evaluate it and adjust your course at a deliberate pace, with a key spreadsheet or three keeping track of the numbers.

But today you have so much data coming at you in real time that it's hard to gather it, organise it and put it to good use. A lot of companies simply get overwhelmed, throw up their hands, and keep flying straight into the bad weather ahead. That's a big mistake because you will have a rough flight and could very well crash.

Instead, get the tools you need to gather and analyse data. This way you can see turbulence before it arrives, navigate through the clouds avoiding the worst of the storm and resume a smooth flight path on the other side.

Airlines long ago recognised that instrumentation is vital to the safe and efficient operation of their aircraft. The cockpit instruments provide pilots with crucial data like altitude, airspeed and heading. They also can show the impact of headwinds on fuel consumption or calculate the fuel margin available after a significant detour-so much more than they can gather with the naked eye. By the same token, the best corporations now rely on data and analytics to manage their operations, rather than fly blind from one hair-raising incident to the next.  Breaking down silos between your front and back office functions lets you know not just how much fuel is left in the tank, but what's the weather like between you and your target, and should you be speeding up, slowing down, or trying a different path to dodge the worst of the storm.

2. Identify patterns and themes

There is a vast array of different data sources today. Often, different sources tell you different things. For example, at the moment we have the president saying one thing about the pandemic, state governors saying another thing and health officials saying something else entirely.

How do you pull all the signals together and understand them to know the truth and make the right decisions for your business?

To start, you should identify what are the relevant signals. Of course, you want to capture those traditional signals that are in your internal systems. But don't stop there. You should also capture unstructured data, like what you hear from your employees, customers and competitors.

At our company, for example, we've instructed our salespeople to tag every instance when a customer or prospect mentions the pandemic during a phone call or Zoom conference. We use the tag #COVID. This gives us a picture of which customers are least affected and most affected by the pandemic. We can identify risks and look for new opportunities. We can see patterns and themes that reveal not just the proverbial needle in a haystack but the needle in many fields of haystacks.

3. Triangulate your data points

Even though a sales rep tells her sales manager that a customer is close to making a big purchase, we may be getting contradictory signals from other parts of FinancialForce. We might be hearing from our  finance team that businesses in the same industry as that customer are actually starting to cut spending or asking to extend or alter current payment terms. Our professional services organisation could have just had to update their account contacts as people we had previously identified as "advocates" or "product champions" had moved to different roles, or even out of the organisation.

It's crucial to triangulate those differing data points and question what you're hearing. That's what we do at FinancialForce. Using triangulation to help in our decision-making is made much easier when the majority of our data resides on a single platform. When we see data that is clearly contradictory, it gives our teams a chance to take a step back, and ask pointed questions to get clarity. Triangulation gives us contextual perspective to ask the right questions and come up with the best answers.

One question we are grappling with now is when to reopen our San Francisco office to employees.We were thinking it would be doable soon, if we reconfigured all desks to be six feet apart. But once we factored in additional data points like our building, which only allows two people in an elevator at a time, or the fact that a significantly larger percentage of our San Francisco office employees take public transit to work which elevates risk for everyone.. We are now weighing all those inputs-as well as what our vendors, customers and other businesses in our region are doing - before we make a final decision.

4. Strategically allocate resources

Every company is seeing resources and capacity shift. Data will help you figure out where you have room to manoeuvre and where you're being stretched thin. Perhaps your salespeople or solution engineers have more free time right now because deals are slow. If you're a software company, for instance, this is a good opportunity to reallocate sales talent to a post-sales or service-oriented role in which they help customers conduct system updates and optimisations to ensure they get the most value from your applications.

Look for signals that will help you make those reallocation decisions. We use a tool that tells us the usage of our software by customers on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. In many cases, system usage has gone up dramatically, as companies with remote workers rely more on our technology. In those cases, we have reallocated resources to provide customers with extra training and added services to help them operate more efficiently.

Companies can't afford to fly blind in our post-pandemic world. The effective use of data and analytics can help you establish where you are, see where you need to go and figure out how to get there, even if there are storms in the way.

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