Predictive analytics aids sales forecast accuracy at RingCentral

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright September 18, 2014
Summary:
Data science startup Aviso applies predictive analytics to sales projections. Customer RingCentral says its sales forecast accuracy has been spot on

Globe on financial planning papers © Artur Marciniec - Fotolia
On July 1st this year, startup Aviso's Insights product spat out its predictive analytics of the new quarter's sales projections for charter customer RingCentral. Over the eleven weeks of the quarter that have elapsed since then, those projections have proved uncannily accurate, says Bill Dolby, senior director of sales operations at the cloud business phone systems provider:

Our actuals have tracked dead on for that forecast. It's actually blown away our sales managers.

Dolby is now eagerly awaiting the next quarterly projection, knowing that it will instantly surface whether any corrective action is needed.

I can't wait to see what Aviso is going to predict for us in Q4. If it's not enough, I've got a whole quarter to put strategies in place to change history.

For a recently listed company — RingCentral had its IPO a year ago in September 2013 — it's hugely valuable to have this kind of foresight, explains Dolby.

We've actually seen it be dead on during the quarter. The value of that is incalculable.

We're a new public company and you can imagine the focus we have on being accurate with our projections to Wall Street, and how damaging a miss would be. That's very high value for a young company like ours.

Quant data smarts

KV Rao, CEO, Aviso
K V Rao, Aviso

Aviso has been able to bring this level of sales forecast accuracy by applying data science honed in the field of financial portfolio management — co-founder and CTO Andrew Abrahams is a former head of quant research at JP Morgan Chase.

This brings data smarts to a field that still gets by largely on spreadsheets and gut feel, says co-founder and CEO, K V Rao:

Sales forecasting, even in large public companies, is tedious and is managed in spreadsheets. Large Fortune 500 public companies literally have armies of analysts and manage their forecasting in legions of spreadsheets.

While other companies have applied predictive analytics in marketing, Aviso claims it is unique in the way it has targeted its data smarts at the sales pipeline. This doesn't come cheap — annual subscriptions start at $100k for 50+ sales reps.

The onboarding process starts by loading at least four years of sales data into Aviso's cloud-based analytics engine. It takes around two to four weeks to calibrate the predictive algorithms against the data, back-test to check that it's all working and then configure the application to the client's business processes. Once this is done, the data is kept up to date with short, automatic batch updates.

Tailored solution

The painstaking steps are labor-intensive but Dolby says that he welcomed Aviso's willingness to tailor the solution to the way RingCentral operates.

When I talked to many vendors they would say, 'Why would you do it that way?' and I'd have to twist their arm and they would say, 'Maybe I could put that in my next release'.

Aviso were very customer focused in customizing our views for us. That made a huge difference for us. We felt like Aviso had a customer focus that was different than other companies.

RingCentral is one of half a dozen early customers — others include Saba Software, Replicon and Damballa. There's a skew towards technology companies but that reflects the early adopting customers Aviso has access to as a startup based in Silicon Valley rather than a limitation to the software, says Rao.

It's more a matter of how we get started than any particular type of company. Whether you're selling airplanes or software — or services even — the technology is applicable.

Rao, who previously founded subscription commerce vendor Zuora and before that was chief scientist at WebEx, also confirmed the product works across "the full cycle of revenue in any B2B business," from new business through upsells, crosssells and renewals. While most current customers are using Salesforce, the product will also work with other CRM tools and there is already one customer using it with Microsoft Dynamics CRM.

Making an impact

Dolby cited three aspects of sales operations where Aviso is making an impact at RingCentral.

The first is, I can see my pipeline and forecast in many different ways. Aviso's hoovered up the data and presented it in very flexible ways for us.

RingCentral has several hundred sales representatives serving more than 300,000 customers globally. The customer base splits into various segments, with several high volume segments where customers typically have less than 10 users, and a more traditional enterprise sales operation for customers with anything up to 1000+ users. Getting insight across those segments wasn't possible in Salesforce or by using spreadsheet-based visualization, says Dolby.

We have so much data with the high volume of transactions we have in the quarter, it's so difficult to see any trends in that data. Salesforce's native reporting structure is just not fast enough for us to drill into the data.

Aviso allows us to see our business changing day-to-day and when we see something unusual we can just click on it. Sometimes it's a mistake in how the data came into Salesforce, sometimes it's a deal that got deferred.

Weekly review meetings

The second aspect where Aviso has made a significant impact is in the weekly sales forecast review meetings that first-line sales managers have with their individual sales reps.

You've got to have good data or you're just having a verbal meeting. With Aviso we're able to give our sales managers several views of how a sales representative is doing at the click of a mouse. That's with no preparation, it's all just instantly available in Aviso.

They have all the data they need and the sales rep can't pull the wool over their eyes any more. It motivates the rep to go clean up and make their pipeline more accurate.

The third aspect is the predictive nature of Aviso's data analysis, says Dolby.

Where Aviso really stands out from standard BI tools like Tableau is they have predictive analytics.

They look over the historical data and find a pattern for each rep. Each rep has a pattern that's predictable.

They're able to score every deal in our pipeline and predict what the revenue yield is going to be and for each sales rep how many new deals they're going to build within the pipeline.

Now I can really do the people management I need to do to make sure my reps make their numbers.

Verdict

We're beginning to see predictive analytics being applied in various fields of business that in the past have always relied heavily on a combination of gut feel and mammoth spreadsheets. It may be galling to discover that a computer thinking in just 0s and 1s can get a better handle on the data than all of our human intuition, but you can't really argue with it if it works.

RingCentral is just one customer and we haven't had a chance to speak to others but Dolby's testimony is emphatic. Coming from a hugely experienced sales operations manager it's an impressive tale.

Of course the predictions can only ever be as good as the data and the algorithms — you must always be on your guard against those black swan events that aren't built into the model. But given the scope for human error built into spreadsheets and gut instinct, bringing predictive analytics into this kind of business critical forecasting seems to be a no-brainer.

No doubt others will debate Aviso's claim to be the first data science solution in the sphere of sales forecasting but one thing's for sure — there will soon be many more, both in this field and elsewhere.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com is a diginomica premier partner.

Image credits: Finance globe © Artur Marciniec - Fotolia.com; KV Rao headshot and product image courtesy of Aviso.

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