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What I Learned By Launching A New Course On Sales Analytics

In Fall 2022, I launched a new executive education course at the Kellogg School of Management, where I am an analytics professor. The course, called “Advanced Analytics for Sales Leaders,” is a short, but deep, dive into how cutting-edge data analytics and data science can inform sales leadership. I created the course because, after nearly three years as the Chief Analytics Officer at a sales software company, I had seen too many sales leaders who simply didn’t know what analytics and data science could do for them.

The new course was a great success, which I attribute to the fact that I built iteratively and gathered lots of feedback. I listened to sales leaders talk about their challenges and how they are currently using data. I user-tested material by delivering content in various formats and forums. I posted short snippets of insights and content on LinkedIn to see what generated discussion, what resonated, and what was confusing or maybe even flat-out wrong.

Throughout this new program launch, I learned many things that I think may be valuable to the sales and revenue leadership community. I’ve distilled them into four buckets:

First, many sales leaders think of analytics as very different than data science, and many don’t know what data science is. Many view analytics as business intelligence – bar charts showing how different channels are differently effective and heat maps showing how sales varies by time of the day, day of week, 0r across territories. (Heat maps are a big crowd favorite.) When sales leaders are exposed to data science, which I use interchangeably with “advanced analytics,” they develop a new understanding of the power of data to predict the future, and not just summarize aggregate past trends. Advanced analytics opens a new world of customization, resource allocation, and efficient sales planning. Advanced analytics drives decision-making and strategy in ways that BI cannot.

Second, because many sales leaders have a pre-existing concept of “analytics,” it’s harder than I anticipated to communicate why this course will help them. Those who use business intelligence tools might reasonably believe they are very data-driven. I believe that a savvy BI user is a perfect candidate to collaborate with data teams and data scientists to take their sales leadership to higher levels. I begin my course with examples of how BI can lead to bad decision-making. It’s eye opening for many. But before I get someone in the classroom, differentiating “advanced analytics” from “business intelligence” can be difficult.

To wit, some prospects reached out to me before the class began, asking what technology I would be using – maybe Tableau, or PowerBI, or Salesforce? But this course doesn’t have a chosen technology. It isn’t about how to use a tool to generate insights and build visualizations. Rather, we discuss bigger-picture strategies, like how to build a great sales function on a foundation of advanced analytics. That said, technology is, indeed, one important choice that sales leaders need to make, so I do have a lesson titled “What Every Sales Leader Needs to Know About Sales Analytics Tech.” I’m glad I included that.

Third, many sales leaders don’t realize their role as an analytics leader. Analytics, of course, is helpful only to the extent that it helps answer important business questions and solves important problems. And who is best positioned to identify an organization’s important sales questions and problems? It is, of course, the sales leaders themselves, who therefore must take a primary and active role in shaping the analytics strategy. My goal is not to turn sales leaders into data scientists, but rather to help them build a high-performing sales organization. If an organization has a data team, it is imperative that the sales and data leadership work hand in hand to identify and solve high-value sales problems.

Last, I learned that sales leadership has begun to blur with marketing leadership and, more broadly, revenue leadership. Sales leaders are looking to drive revenue in all forms, not just close more deals or serve existing accounts. While the course is for current and aspiring sales leaders, it may just as easily have been for “revenue leaders.” This was apparent in the diversity of class participants’ business objectives, from tactical goals such as “making our annual revenue target” and “recover lost sales due to covid” to bigger initiatives like “increase market share” and “grow marketing ROI.” I find it notable that marketers were early and eager adopters of advanced analytics, while adoption by sales has lagged. I now foresee a sizable and rapid push for sales teams to upskill, embracing these same analytics tools and concepts.

Building and teaching a new course is a highly rewarding experience. My favorite comment in the course evaluation was “this is a completely new way for me to look at sales.” I’m looking forward to the next iteration of the course in Spring 2023 and helping a new group of curious, ambitious, and talented sales leaders discover this “completely new way” to build their sales success and their own careers.