The sales team at VoIP Supply, a Buffalo New, York-based phone supplies company, had a problem. They needed a way they could continually visualize their ongoing sales data and metrics. Their solution? A business dashboard. According to Ben Sayers, company CEO and owner, the business alighted on the dashboard as its answer because it would shows sales reps “where their numbers are at on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis” and thus it lent insight into their progress toward desired goals. It also, Sayers points out, offers him a relatively easy way to measure the performance and accountability of the sales team.
“The most important thing at the company is sales and profits,” Sayers notes, explaining why his sales staff gravitates towards this dashboard now. “If sales aren't going well or things are going slow, the dashboard provides an opportunity for anyone in the company to step up and ask themselves, ‘What else can I do to help the company be more successful?’ The dashboard shows what direction the company is heading in; no one is left in the dark."
This simple anecdote is typical of many small businesses that use so-called dashboard software to track the ebb and flow of their daily operations. However, though dashboards can be an excellent way of providing companies a visual, real-time scoreboard of how they are achieving their goals and faring financially, they are not infallible. The old “garbage-in, garbage-out” rule applies here and the potential value of a dashboard should be viewed within the context of each individual business’s specific industry or sector.
Following are some ways that small business owners can leverage business dashboards to their advantage.
Include only the metrics you feel are integral to your business
What your business hopes to track on its dashboard can be almost any kind of data, from number of contracts closed to cash flow to average sales amount, says Gerry Anderson, president and founder of the Toronto-based Logicon Solutions, a consulting firm that has set up numerous dashboards for both small businesses and large multinational firms. He recommends finding one or two process metrics that allow a business owner or manager to track projects from inception to completion. “[These metrics] might include time to completion, average days in WIP (or work in progress) or average number of days to close.”
Be careful when choosing the technology
This may sound insultingly simplistic to tech-savvy business owners, but it bears mention if you don’t want to incur unnecessary costs that will result due to faulty software. Do your research and due diligence when it comes to selecting dashboard technology. Set realistic expectations on what you want it to do before approaching a vendor with your requirements.
“There are a ton of dashboard technologies on the market now that all look similar and make claims of dashboards in minutes,” says Ryan Goodman, founder of Centigon Solutions, a San Diego-based firm that specializes in creating business dashboards for clients, which include small businesses. “All of these technologies require time in planning, which is 90 percent of the effort. You want to make sure that the remaining 10 percent can be implemented without any coding or $250-an-hour consultants.”
Use different dashboards for different departments
Every department in a company is striving toward the same goal, but in different ways, says VoIP Supply’s Sayers.
“Each department has different performance metrics that roll up to the larger company KPIs [key performance indicators),” he adds. “Having different dashboards shows how each person affects each department which has a hand in influencing the overall success of the company."
Find software that reports data as accurately as possible
As Sayers found out after an initial hiccup, there’s little use in having a business dashboard that doesn’t consistently keep track of your highlighted metrics. If you’re going to invest time and money into getting the most value out of your business dashboard, counsels Anderson,then it behooves you to find a tool that will accurately automate the compilation and publishing of metrics.
To illustrate his point, Anderson offers this example: “We had one client who was getting regular financial statements from their bookkeeper and accountant. However, the data was always two to three months late and they had a tough time trying to figure out a way to link the financial statements to their day-to-day business. After working with them, we created a solution that allowed them to pull data out on a daily basis from their accounting and order management systems so they could get their metrics and dashboards the next day. Now, the dashboard allows the business to immediately respond to problems or opportunities that appear in its daily operations.”
Don’t inundate your dashboard with unnecessary information
Make sure it only reflects data that’s relevant. “A good dashboard stays focused on the company's goals without oversaturating the user,” says Sayers. “Avoid showing too much information because if it doesn't apply to your employees, they're not going to use it.”
Benchmark your goals
Karen Leavitt, chief marketing officer at Fleetmatics, which provides GPS-tracking dashboards for small businesses to manage their vehicle and driver behavioral data, says this is a critical takeaway. “You know your business, you know your numbers, and you know exactly what you want to change,” she says. “Take thirty seconds, grab the nearest post-it note, and write down what your numbers are today. Put a date on it and duct-tape it to a wall and [incorporate this info into the dashboard] to set goals.”
For instance, Leavitt says Fleetmatics recommends their customers use their dashboards to “look at the number of jobs done per person per month, the number of jobs lost to competitors, the monthly cost of fuel, and the monthly cost of overtime.”
Don’t treat it as the end-all-be-all to your business analysis
A business dashboard is only as good as the technology that supports it and the team that uses it. It’s tempting in this wired age to treat any form of software technology as a faultless resource, but that would be a mistake. This leads to another key best practice: back up all files. Just because the information is now on your business dashboard doesn’t mean it won’t succumb to glitches or malfunctions leading to devastating data loss.
“Dashboards and reports are not magical tools that will unlock new insight automatically,” says Goodman. “You need to really think about your business process and understand where you are today and what your goals are. The dashboard is simply going to work as a visual reference point to quickly indicate if you are on track or if there are problems.”