By clicking “Accept All Cookies”, you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance site navigation, analyze site usage, and assist in our marketing efforts. View our Privacy Policy for more information.
Revenue Operations
Flash Icon Decorative

Beyond KPIs: The Art of Storytelling With Data

Scribbles 2

When writing fiction, every story should have a beginning, middle, and end. When reviewing a deck in executive data reviews, your presentation begins with the end (did we hit, exceed, or miss our goal?), touches on what went wrong, and closes with what steps will be taken to perform better. Start with the punchline!

I learned this the hard way thanks to a boss who thought the best way to learn was to crash and burn, then figure it out.

Don't tell him this, but my mistakes prepared me for reporting to the board as an executive leader. However, I could have been much better at drawing attention to what mattered most had I started my journey from a more educated position. My goal with this article is to save one or two people from making my mistakes so they can focus on developing more advanced skills than I did.

When it comes to data storytelling, the first step is always understanding the point of an executive data review. Trust me. This part matters even if you're preparing a dashboard for your sales leader.

What's the goal of an executive business review?

The primary goal of an executive business review for venture-backed or private equity-backed businesses is to prepare the executive team for the board meeting. The CEO drives the narrative, but board members and investors (if the company is public) want to know the same three things:

  • Are you on track to hit projected goals?
  • What went wrong or could be improved?
  • What are you doing differently to fix #2?

In the United States, the average tenure for a CRO is 18 months, a CMO is 18 months, and a VP of Customer Success is 12 months. Each department head is keenly aware that they will only last for a while if they miss their goals. It's why people in revenue operations see a lot of finger-pointing when things go badly.

Believe it or not, revenue operations can play a massive role in changing how issues are aired in the boardroom and help their leaders avoid coming under fire by escalating insights early in the quarter – not during the business review when everything has already gone to sh*t.

Many leaders build dashboards to identify and correct issues before their peers beat them up for missing a goal. Unfortunately, they don't always know where to look. This is where RevOps can save the day.

Stats are nice. Insights are much better.

If you have any part in preparing the board deck, you know there are metrics that the executive team reviews at the end of the quarter. These metrics are important (usually, but more on that later), but they pale in comparison to:

  1. Your ability to spot whether those metrics are trending above or below goal throughout the quarter
  2. Your understanding of the data that feeds those metrics: how clean it is, what is in place to ensure accuracy, and what your frontline reps do that leads up to that number (the steps in their processes)
  3. Your ability to recommend where to do more research and find the true cause of an issue
  4. Your relationships and trust built with frontline representatives

Your organization must invest in operations and systems, but it's your job to raise the alarm when your systems are inadequate or your time is spent on non-revenue-impacting tasks.

Even the most talented analysts can't establish cause and effect if they're spending all their time trying to merge data sources and fix a data hygiene problem. 

But the only way you'll get funding is if you learn to communicate the impact of not fixing the problem and what you're missing out on by wasting a ton of time fixing stuff in spreadsheets. Consider reading our article on building a business case.

How do you spot a problem early?

If you report on key metrics at the end of the quarter, you're too late. Find ways to pull these metrics weekly. Compare trend lines from prior months for these records. Why? A problem identified early can be addressed and possibly turned around before quarter end.

The board and your CEO would rather hear that your executive is proactively fixing issues than an "Oops, looks like we missed the goal" in the executive business review.

The goal is to compare something like pipeline generated through week 5 to the same point in the quarter for the previous five quarters. Is it ahead? Is it behind? After looking at these numbers on their own long enough as the quarter progresses, you'll get a feel for what's normal and what isn't. 

For example, perhaps you'll note that AEs tend to focus most heavily on pipeline build in month one of the quarter and practically ignore the need for it by month three—which is normal for companies with quarterly quotas.

Analyzing trends is easier said than done. It's easier with a data warehouse solution, SQL knowledge, business knowledge, and a visualization tool. However, I've had to be scrappy and build mechanisms in my CRM to help me understand trends without access to a data warehouse.

The first step to building sustainable systems is to understand and accept that 90% of B2B sales are not linear. Many marketing systems aren't made to talk to your CRM – and will require far more work than expected. Sales forecasting is just as much of an art as a science. Most churned customers have a "green" health score when they churn.

The second point of acceptance is that building extra workflows to capture data on the object you want to report on is much more streamlined and less labor-intensive than relying on history reports in your CRM or analytics snapshots. Feel free to try these things, but you'll only end up extremely frustrated with their rigidity and the expense of maintaining them.

Build flows and mechanisms to allow for qualified leads to disengage and requalify. Make sure your contact object and prospect accounts (at a minimum - really, a customer should be able to raise their hand and get attention) can disengage and re-engage.

Create a push counter (counts the number of times a close date is pushed out), build stage stamps, and talk to business leaders about how the rules should work. Matt V. and I argue about whether sales reps should be able to move stages backward. I say absolutely. Forecasting will NEVER be an exact science.

The sales manager should be able to correct stages at a minimum, but it's a coaching opportunity if we identify someone who moves them back and forth. It's often a sign that they aren't following or have a consistent qualification process. 

Salesforce keeps a lot of stage changes in its opportunity history table. Hubspot does this reasonably well. Even if you keep the most recent stage achieved and delete those values if the stage is corrected backward (minus closed lost; then everything keeps the stamp up until that lost stage).

Keep track of the key metrics your business wants to report on at the end of the quarter, figure out how to repeatedly report on them throughout the quarter, and compare them to the same point in the prior quarter. 

Finally, be humble. You only see a fraction of what happens in the business. The people who manage your frontline people and functional groups have context you don't. Get curious and ask questions rather than tell them what is right and wrong with their business. 

Get familiar with phrases like, "I noticed this…do you have any ideas what may cause that?" "I see this pattern, but I'm curious if you've seen market changes that would help explain…" "I see these three salespeople have recently changed their forecasting pattern… are they ok?"

If you're looking for precise metrics, what causes them to go wrong, and how to communicate those changes to your executive team, consider taking this certification on board reporting by the RevOps Co-op.

A note on inherent ambiguity

A soft skill my first boss (the same one who liked to throw me in uncomfortable situations as a learning opportunity) taught me was empathy for how difficult it is to be in any position in the company. Everyone feels under appreciated—even that over-performing account executive. Work is hard, and life often makes it even more complicated, and we're all interacting with people going through their own stuff.

Salespeople have to hear "NO" all day long. Marketers must try to get their weird systems to speak a language finance demands and listen to salespeople demand more "at-bats." Customer success deals with impossible customers who were probably oversold on qualities that aren't available, and none of that is their fault.

Every go-to-market team tries to guide a human's opinion and behavior, and every go-to-market team has a lot of inherent ambiguity built into the numbers they try to predict. In the aggregate, it's easy to see patterns. On a customer-per-customer basis, it's an absolute mess.

As Lance Thompson told me while he was in sales, "I can tell you the number I'll hit, but I can't tell you which of the eight prospects will get me there at the beginning of the quarter."

As another example, we know that opportunities have stages with correlating percentages that are supposed to reflect the probability of a deal closing. And there's a close date and an amount associated with products. For short-cycle sales, a seller will know how many deals they can close in a given period, but they don't know the exact mix of accounts that will make up that number (see Lance's comment above - it's not just him; trust me).

For longer-cycle sales, the salesperson will know that some deals are shaky and some will definitely close, and it's their job to figure out how to close enough to make up the gap.

Sales managers understand that their team members will each favor a forecasting strategy. Some like to underpromise and over-deliver (the "sandbaggers"), some are wildly optimistic, and a few land precisely on the beginning of quarter prediction nearly every quarter. A manager sees the amount each sales rep is projecting and uses their gut to temper that number when it gets to their manager, and their manager does the same.

So if it's ambiguous, what can RevOps do to predict anything? 

A case study.

Analysts can draw some conclusions about how accurate a salesperson's forecast will be based on prior performance (AKA forecast integrity and pipeline coverage). They will also see how much they tend to push their close dates and how many deals they refuse to close that clearly aren't ever going to close. An excellent analyst will also look at leading indicators and be able to flag that a lack of SFDC logins, pipeline build, and activities is a strong predictor of attrition.

Once analysts learn to distinguish between leading and lagging indicators, they can begin telling a story instead of flagging outliers.

Let's say your sales VP has informed the executive team that he doesn't see a clear path to reaching their quarter-end number. With fifteen days left, it looks like his team will only produce 80% of the goal.

The executive team wants to know what went wrong (and is on call to leverage any connections to close deals).

A good analyst will point out that bookings aren't on track. A great analyst will work backward to figure out the backstory.

Start at the point of sale and look for potential points of failure:

  • What was the forecast at the beginning of the quarter? 
  • How accurate have they been historically? 
  • How much pipeline did they begin the quarter with?
  • Historically, would this have been enough?
  • What is the percentage of opportunities that typically close in quarter? Has this quarter's pipeline generation been anemic?
  • Where are the deals falling off (at what stage)? Is this normal? Are people running into a consistent stall point?
  • Talk to the management team and place a few (anonymous feedback) calls to key sellers.

Sometimes, it takes a few salespeople to trust you to determine what's wrong. At one company, a few phone calls uncovered that we had made a key competitor's radar, and they had an initiative to price us out of any deal where we went head-to-head. At other times, the feedback was that the product had a critical shortcoming that sabotaged a proof of concept or contract terms, causing larger corporations to balk and redline. 

If the issue stems from a department not supported by your organization, we advise working with their analysts instead of escalating directly to the executive team. This will give them an opportunity to figure out their own narrative and encourage an open line of communication. Unfortunately, finger-pointing is a common symptom of a bad quarter. It's best to let teams know they'll be under scrutiny before it's too late.

Long story short, there are no shortcuts. Watch the KPIs throughout the quarter, learn what activities influence those KPIs, and establish a group of people in each functional area you can call on to gut-check suspicions. If you guarantee anonymity and emphasize that your goal is to make their jobs easier, I guarantee they'll be eager to help once you've earned their trust.

(keep at the bottom of every article)

Looking for more great content? Check out our blog and join the community.

Related posts

Join the Co-op!

scribbles 7 birds
Tail Spin Animation