How many times have we all heard something like “I’ve done this for a long time!  I know what will work best!” in a meeting?  I’d bet that it’s more than you can count, and I’d also bet that the person saying those things has less than a 100% success rate with their judgment calls.

Unfortunately, this is a pretty typical scenario, even in the most innovative businesses.  Companies have relied on experience and “the way we do things” for so long that it has become a very painful process to move into the current world and start using data and information tools to make business decisions.

The reality is that the pace of business and of changes in customers’ behaviors has increased so sharply over the past few years, which means that even the most experienced people have trouble keeping up sometimes.  Businesses that have learned to mine and use the information that gets collected on their operations and customers every day are ahead of the curve, and are finding that they are able to be in control of their paths forward.

Find and Clean Your Data

Ever wonder why you’re asked about your address and phone number every single time you call or visit a company you have an account with?

It has as much to do with them wanting to make sure they have your most recent information as it does with them securely verifying your account.  The information you collect on your customers starts aging as soon as you’ve entered it, but there are some things you can do to help keep everything up to date.

It may surprise you to find out that you don’t have to be a database expert to understand where your information is being stored and to learn how to run reports on that data.  Most modern customer information systems like CRM and even accounting solutions like Quickbooks have simple drag and drop-style reporting, which can help you determine what kinds of information you have on your customers and your business operations.

Once you know where everything is, you’re likely to find that the data needs a little cleaning.  Often, the same customer will have bits of information stored in more than one system in your company.  You can check by looking at simple reports from each system, but you may want (database expert required here!) to look at ways to enter data once and have it fill all systems by integrating or connecting them.

Paint a Pretty Picture

Unless your business is filled with data scientists (it may be), your employees will have little appetite to stare at a spreadsheet to get the information they need.

Most people have trouble spotting trends and patterns in raw data, so you’ll want to find a way to make a visual that illustrates and tells the story that lies in the numbers.

There are many fancy, relatively affordable software options for crafting some really great looking charts and graphs, but even knowing the right kind of visual to use will go a long way toward getting your point across.

Many times, the stories told in business are about changes over time and trends.

The numbers from this month’s sales don’t mean much without something to compare them to.

The same goes for basic operations data.

Did we spend more on facilities maintenance this time than we did last month?

These types of questions can be answered with a line graph that shows directional movement between points in time.  Seeing the line moving up or down is a very powerful visual, and helps drive home the facts when it comes to trends and performance over time.

Similarly, other graphs and charts like bars or pies are great at illustrating different types of information, like comparing performance of different retail stores (bars) or breaking down percentages and showing how they stack up (pies).

Keep in mind that contrasting colors and text that isn’t too tiny or cluttered are key to making your visuals readable and effective.  It’s a stressful experience trying to understand a graph cluttered with numbers and text and colors that make it hard to see what’s going on.

Communication and understanding are the building blocks for a successful data strategy, and there are obviously quite a few more elements involved beyond organizing and presenting data, but you don’t have to be the second coming of IBM to get value out of the information you collect every day.

Starting small, trying to understand what kinds of information you have and where it is and then showing that data to people in the organization will help build that data “muscle”, and make folks more comfortable reading between the lines and looking at information to make decisions.

The importance of growing and understanding your business’s information can’t be understated, and is quickly becoming one of the best ways to flourish and be successful.