Building an Analytics Tool for the Way a Sales Agency Works
As someone who has spent a career working with analytics in CPG, I am continuously astonished at how dramatically our toolbox has changed in just the past few years. There has been explosive growth in data that’s available, as well as major advances in computing power, making advanced capabilities such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) widely available. Simply tracking scanned sales in brick & mortar is no longer enough. As consumer behavior—what and how they buy—has evolved, we need these enhanced capabilities now more than ever!
Yet in the midst of all this change, the sales agency model hasn’t quite kept pace. Most agencies don’t empower their sales associates to directly access and analyze the data, instead relying on a remote and often centralized resource. While this specialization of work used to make sense, the delays and inefficiencies that it creates in getting the right answers is unacceptable in today’s market. What’s more, the data tools agencies use are generally “off the rack” applications better suited for the narrow needs of a manufacturer—not the broad scope of an agency. In short, there has to be a better way.
And CROSSMARK was determined to find that better way.
Employing our “data, technology, people” value proposition and working with our partners IBM, Microsoft, and IRI, we saw the massive potential for a new integrated data platform. After countless hours of work and collaboration across all parties, Accelerator was born. Although the work needed to get this new and innovative platform off the ground was monumental, the driving factors that steered Accelerator’s blueprint were simple:
- Reduce grunt work and “swivel chair” activity that robs efficiency. We wanted to free our associates from manually building reports and creating charts so they could reinvest that time on higher value activities that drive growth or save money for our clients. By eliminating time spent on tedious, lower value tasks—which are ripe for automation— we’ve estimated ~20% more available time for our Insights team to spend on increased value-added analytics.
- Create greater speed to insights and more predictive power. Using AI and ML, we wanted to spend less time reporting what happened and focus more on forecasting what will happen. For promotion planning, our Accelerator Scenario Planner is expected to improve client profitability by 2% or more. The hidden benefit of machine learning is that our predictive power will improve as the platform constantly reviews past predictions to improve the accuracy of the algorithms.
- Finally, we wanted a robust data architecture that could embrace new sources of data as they appear. Since the data evolution is inevitable, we desired an “omnivorous” approach that could integrate disparate sources with ease. And not just different kinds of data…HUGE amounts of data! While a manufacturer needs to keep track of a few hundred SKUs in a handful of categories, an agency is responsible for nurturing hundreds of brands and thousands of items in a store. Accelerator is presently managing over 7 billion lines of data but has the capacity for much more than that.
Beyond those build considerations, there are other innovations and efficiencies that make Accelerator special. First off, Accelerator was designed from scratch by both Sales and Insights associates, working in complete collaboration to develop an analytics platform for the way an agency works. As you could guess, building a customized tool takes longer and is more expensive, but the outcome is better matched to the job at hand. Also, engaging the end user early in the development process goes a very long way in adoption and compliance. In our case that meant engaging the sales team. But more on that later.
People support what they help build. But perhaps the most important innovation is not the tool itself, but how we use it. Accelerator is created using Microsoft PowerBI, a highly interactive visualization tool that makes data quick and easy to access and interpret. Our sales teams can access Accelerator from anywhere using the PowerBI App—giving them on-demand access to the entire suite of solutions for every “moment of truth” with the customer. This kind of access means that never again will one of our managers have to respond to a retailer’s inquiry with “Let me get back to you.”
However, any tool is only as good as the skills of the user. And entrusting this responsibility to sales managers who are accustomed to relying on others for data analysis is a BIG change.
Transformation is hard because humans resist change, especially when it involves technology. A very high percentage of digital/technology transformations—as high as 70%—fail and the #1 cause is that the organization doesn’t buy in to the new technology. Acknowledging this, CROSSMARK worked with industry experts to build a robust change management program to reinforce adoption and compliance with the new ways of working.
As leaders, it is our responsibility to help our associates understand why change is necessary and give them the training they need to be successful. We constantly communicate with our associates about Accelerator—sending out updates and soliciting feedback—so that everyone understands how all their efforts will lead to better outcomes for them and CROSSMARK. Every Sales and Insights associate completed the same learning program, involving over 20 hours of live training, along with help desks, “boot camps,” and structured homework. My team holds Accelerator office hours every day to make sure we are available to help address immediate needs. In addition, to make sure these new skills become permanent, certification in Accelerator and The CROSSMARK Way is now a part of our annual performance management program.
Everything I’ve described above occurred over a 20-month period. And while I think what we’ve recently launched is impressive, it’s only one part of a much longer, phased plan. In the coming releases, we will continue to leap forward by adding new data sources like ePOS to better track omni sales, shopper behavior to better understand business drivers, and profitability to a true ROI on promotion and distribution. Incorporating other important services, such as space management or order-to-cash, are also in the plan.
It’s been a long journey to get to this point, but the investment has been worth it. Accelerator is absolutely state-of-the-art technology. Our clients are excited and I’ve never seen our associates so confident in the future. As an organization, our promise to clients is “smarter selling and faster growth,” so for the business analysis needs of today and tomorrow, Accelerator will be a single point of reference for our teams—creating a new, more efficient way for us to drive results for the brands we represent.