Years ago, I was the young CFO of a small company that was purchased by a Fortune-200 company. Within days of the sale, I found myself at corporate headquarters, so I could learn how big companies operate.
Early in the visit, I found myself in the office of the Chief Technology Officer, who droned on and on about the power of their new information system. “We can give our managers any information they need,” he told me several times.
Later, I visited the Vice President of Manufacturing, who had a tall stack of computer printouts on his desk. “That’s quite a stack of reports,” I said. “Do they give you the information you need?”
“No damn way,” he said. “They’re a complete waste of my time.”
In recent years, Excel users working for my coaching and consulting clients have had similar problems with their reports.
For example, one Excel user told me that he had recently distributed a thick report with one page accidentally printed three times in a row…and none of the report’s 200 recipients mentioned the duplication.
And another Excel user said that he occasionally adds a tiny drop of glue between two pages, and then checks the reports in his managers’ offices to see if the pages have been separated…and they rarely are. So managers seldom even look at his reports, much less read them.
If your own Excel reports aren’t as popular as you would like, it’s certainly a frustrating problem for you. But worse, it’s a very serious problem for your company.
One reason it’s serious is that your company spends a lot of money on you and other Excel users. According to Salary.com, the current median salary for Excel users in the US is greater than $57,000 per year. And according to this article in money.cnn.com, your company pays an additional 30% or so in payroll taxes and benefits…for a total cost of about $75,000 per year.
Wasting so much money on unpopular reports is a problem, of course. But another problem is much worse.
Good Excel users are Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). They’re smart, curious, and educated. And they’re hired to understand what their company’s data actually means.
Good Excel users are the eyes and ears of their managers. They look at data in new and creative ways to discover new problems and new opportunities for their company.
Good Excel users are the people who barge into a manager’s office and say, “I’ve created a new report with information that I KNOW you need to see!”
But few Excel users in business have the time or encouragement to discover new and useful information. Instead, companies often waste the brains, energy, and education of their Excel users…
…by turning them into spreadsheet clerks.
If this problem ever is going to be solved, if you ever will become the truly effective information resource that your company needs, then you must take the lead by making your Excel reports incredibly popular.
1. Ask Your Managers What Reports They Want, and Why
Logically, you should be able to ask your managers what they want their reports to be like, and then you give them what they ask for.
But it’s seldom that simple.
This is because few managers know…
- What data is available for their reports.
- What methods are available for analyzing and displaying that data.
- What types of Excel reports are easy to create, and what types are difficult.
In fact, many managers aren’t sure what reports they want to receive in the first place. So the best they can do is to tell you what they like when they see it.
With these problems in mind, you need to meet with your key managers about ways you could improve their reports. And here are some suggestions for those meetings…
Begin by telling them your goal is to give them the best possible information you can with the least possible reading time. So ask them to be as blunt as necessary. And then…
1. Show them some of their current reports and ask what areas they seldom or never read, and WHY. Then ask what areas they usually read…and WHY this information is important to them.
Also ask what changes they would like you to make to these reports…and WHY.
2. Show them mockups of small tables and charts, or even Excel dashboards, and ask what kinds of information they might like to see in displays like that…and WHY.
3. Summarize the sources of data you have available and ask what kinds of information they’d like to see from those sources…and WHY they need the information.
4. Ask them to pretend that there were no limits to your ability to create reports for them, and then ask what information they’d like to see in such an ideal world…and WHY.
5. Create mockup reports in response to your managers’ feedback; get feedback about those mockups; and then put your revised mockups into production…until your readers ask for even more changes.
2. Explain Performance, Don’t Merely Document It
Most Excel reports I’ve seen look like spreadsheet versions of the reports I saw on the desk of the manufacturing manager. Managers hated mind-numbing reports like that back then, and managers hate mind-numbing Excel reports today.
Both types of reports tend to show data in many pages of narrow columns with tiny numbers. Both types seem to be created by people who think, “We don’t know what all these numbers actually mean. So we’ll just give managers all the data we can, and let THEM figure it out!”
It’s not your manager’s job to turn a sea of data into useful insights; that’s your job, as an Excel user.
So if you want your managers to read your Excel reports with interest, then give them reports that explain performance in ways that your managers can read quickly and understand easily.
Your managers should spend their time solving problems, developing opportunities, and questioning your results…not studying stacks of Excel reports, or mindlessly surfing gigabytes of data in a Business Intelligence system.
3. Include Small Charts with Trends, and Small Tables
Most managers love to see trends in performance reports. Trends show managers how the company got to its current position, and offer hints about future performance.
Charts make trends easy to see. And small ones—typically no wider than a newspaper column—make charts easy to compare to other small charts.
Similarly, small tables can show data distilled into a few facts that are important to your readers. For example, you could use small tables to show top-ten or bottom-ten performers, or key facts that are sorted by the most-interesting column.
Don’t force your readers to mentally compare facts from different pages of your reports. Summarize those key facts in a small table. Your reports will be more popular when you do so.
However, your tables WON’T be popular if you make them small by using microscopic fonts. YOU might be able to read 8-point fonts comfortably, but your boss, and her boss probably can’t.
4. Always Be Testing
Asking your managers WHY they want changes in your reports should give you a much better understanding of their information needs. As you think about those needs, you’ll probably think of new reports and analyses that would interest your audience.
When you give them your new report or analysis, explain that it’s a test, with information they might find useful. When managers give you feedback about your test report, ask them WHY they feel the way they do, and how the sections they like best would benefit them.
5. Reduce Your Reporting Times and Error Rates
This is the most important step. If you can’t reduce the time it takes you to create new reports each period, you won’t have the time to work on the other ways to improve your reports. And your Excel reports will continue to be a large company expense that offer less value than they should.
Also, of course, if your reports have frequent errors, your readers won’t trust them…no matter how interesting and attractive your reports might otherwise be.
The best strategy for reducing reporting times and error rates is to store your source data in tables that your formulas can summarize and error-check easily. My coaching and consulting clients are learning about these techniques now. And I’m working on training courses that will concentrate on this strategy.
If you respond quickly to report requests and feedback from your managers and from other readers, then everyone will benefit.
Your company will benefit because you’ll give managers and other responsible people the information they need, so they can do their jobs more effectively.
Your managers will benefit, because you’ll make it faster and easier for them to find new insight in company data.
And you’ll benefit, because you’ll become the go-to person for their information needs, and you’ll have a better understanding of those needs than just about anyone else in your company.