How To Continuously Improve Your CRM (Part Two - Dashboards)

by Bill Harrison on July 5, 2017

In the first blog post in this series, I discussed the need for focusing on data quality and data availability as a way to continuously improve the value of your CRM system.  In this post, we will look at how to create more valuable CRM dashboards.  Your dashboards should be like the dashboard of an airplane--reporting critical information quickly so that you can adjust course before trouble occurs. Below we outline five steps to create high-value dashboards.

Creating High-Value Dashboards

One of the most important and high value uses of your CRM system is to make better business decisions.  After all, wasn’t the reason you spent all that money on CRM so that your business would run smoother and you would have better information about its operation?  Assuming you are happy with the quality of the data in your system, it’s time to focus on designing dashboards to help you use your CRM to run your business better (if you are not happy with the quality of the data in your CRM read the first post in this series now). The five steps to creating effective dashboards are:

  1. Defining your goals
  2. Separating leading indicators from vanity metrics
  3. Verifying data availability and quality
  4. Determining the best data visualization
  5. Building and deploying your dashboards

Defining Your Goals

Before any dashboards are designed for your CRM it is important to make sure you have a clear understanding of your business goals.  CRM exists to support your business but the data you get from your CRM is meaningless if it’s not tied to a specific goal in the business.  So before you start designing dashboards, spend some time reviewing and if necessary, updating your overall business goals.  Be as specific and express goals in quantitative terms whenever possible.  Make sure you truly understand what you wish to accomplish and by what date. 

Separating Leading Indicators from Vanity Metrics

Once you have your business goals in mind, it’s time to focus on how you will measure progress toward those goals.  To do this, look for the leading indicators that predict the success you are trying to achieve.  For example, if you wish to increase sales of a particular product, find out what drives that increase in sales.  Is it new leads from your website?  References from existing satisfied customers?  A particular advertising campaign?  There is not a lot of value in tracking detailed statistics on existing customer references if the vast majority of your new business comes from an online advertising campaign.  Spending time to get clear on these leading metrics now will pay big dividends later.

A common mistake is to focus on “vanity metrics” rather than true leading indicators when designing dashboards.  Vanity metrics are the numbers that feel great to look at but don’t help in predicting the success of the company or in helping you manage it.  Suppose, for example, that your company gets lots of website traffic every week, but the majority of your qualified leads come through partnerships with other companies.  You create a dashboard to display website traffic in real time and you feel great every time you take a look at it.  But that website traffic is not what’s driving your success--qualified leads from partner companies is the true leading indicator.  Still, there is a temptation to report on website traffic since the numbers are typically very good.  That’s what we call a “vanity metric.”  Fun to look at, but not very meaningful or helpful.  It’s human nature to want to see these metrics (sort of like wanting to see the “likes” on your social media posts).  

But does this data help you better run your company?

To answer this question, ask yourself this:  If the metric I am tracking (in this case website visitors) goes up or down next week, what change will I make in the operation of my business?  If the answer to this question is “no change” then there is a pretty good chance you are looking at a vanity metric.  If a drop in website traffic of 10%, 20%, or even 30% does not cause you to change anything in your business, then why are you tracking this statistic in real time?  Perhaps website traffic is a predictor of long-term success, just not a predictor of week-to-week success.  If that’s the case, then delegate this metric to your marketing team and have them report it to you every month or every quarter so you can keep an eye on the trends.  No need to take up valuable real estate on your CRM dashboard to view metrics you will not act on every day or every week.

Verifying Data Availability and Quality

Now that you have a list of the metrics you want to track on your new dashboard, it is worth taking a minute to verify that your CRM is tracking the data you wish to see.  If any of the data you need to build your dashboard is missing from your CRM or of poor quality, go back and fix those issues before moving forward.  There is no sense in building beautiful dashboards only to find out that critical data is missing or of such poor value as to be meaningless.  Details on the process of improving data availability and quality can be found in the first post in this series.

Determining the Best Data Visualization

Next, it’s time to focus on the mechanics of designing a useful dashboard.  Dashboard design is a big topic, well beyond the scope of this blog post, but I can provide a basic strategy for making sure your CRM dashboards are visualized effectively.  

First, eliminate unnecessary data.  Try to make your dashboards as simple as possible.  Eliminate any superfluous data even if that data is readily available and easy to report.  Focus only on the elements that help you with decision-making.

Second, choose the correct visualization for the data.  Start with the standard dashboards that come with your CRM.  They will likely report data in simple graphical formats like line charts and bar charts.  See if your data is meaningful when presented in this way.  If it is, then great, your dashboards will be pretty easy and quick to set-up.

If your visualization needs are more complex, you may want to have custom dashboards developed.  Custom dashboards have the advantage of the nearly limitless flexibility of design.  Of course, the downside is the increased cost of developing and maintaining custom displays.  Weigh this decision carefully and go the custom route only if you can’t accomplish your goals with the dashboard formats your CRM provides out-of-the-box.

Building And Deploying Your Dashboards

Now that all of the background and design work is complete, it’s time to actually implement your design.  You have several choices for getting your dashboard implemented.  The correct path will depend on several factors including the complexity of your dashboard, the CRM system you are using, and your level of technical expertise.

If your dashboard is relatively simple and can be displayed using the built-in formats in your CRM, you can probably build and deploy the dashboard yourself.  Modern CRM systems have become quite sophisticated in their dashboarding tools so that non-programmers can easily deploy many dashboards without outside assistance.

If you don’t have experience with your CRM system or don’t have the time to learn how to implement your dashboards, find a system administrator or power user who can help you.  Typically this person exists somewhere in your organization.  If they don’t, look for an outside firm that can guide you or do the work for you.

Finally, if the dashboards you wish to deploy are complex and require custom programming, think carefully about who will complete this work.  Do you have someone on staff with the requisite skills to complete this project?  Will this person be available to support the custom dashboards when the inevitable changes need to be made?  If you don’t have these resources in-house, look for an outside firm to help you.  Make sure they have experience in dashboard design and deployment and be certain that they have the capacity to support and maintain your new dashboards moving forward.  

Final Thoughts

The most important step in the process of deploying valuable dashboards is taking the time for proper planning.  Making sure you are tracking the truly important metrics, verifying that the data you need is available in your CRM, and ensuring its quality are the essential steps in this process.  Skipping over these steps will only add cost and frustration down the road.  It’s easy to tweak the look and feel of a well-designed dashboard after it has been built.  It is much harder to rebuild from scratch once you determine you have been tracking the wrong metric all along.

Resources For Further Learning

https://hbr.org/2016/06/visualizations-that-really-work

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-data-visualization-revolution/

https://www.amazon.com/Big-Book-Dashboards-Visualizing-Real-World/dp/1119282713  

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PRODUCT: SugarCRM

AUDIENCES: Administrators End Users

Bill Harrison
VP of Products and Technology at W-Systems
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