One of the earliest practical lessons in computers I ever received was from a cousin of mine who worked for Microsoft in the 1990s. At the time I was in elementary school and just being introduced to the concept of a word processor and proper typing Qwerty typing technique.
Naturally, my cousin, technical wizard that he was, said he could show me something that was much cooler and still school related. He proceeded to start up our home PC’s copy of Excel 5.0 and asked to look at the sheet of math problems I’d been assigned for homework that day. Each question was broken down and stuck into cells of the spreadsheet. He then typed up a few complicated-looking functions and applied them to the entire sheet. All of a sudden all the answers were sitting there in the rightmost column!
Later on, in a graduate-level course, my class was using IBM SPSS to conduct a variety of statistical analyses and data mining operations on a huge, polyvalent data set (in this case it was the results to a city-wide survey). The tens of thousands of individual responses were stored in, you guessed it, a plain Excel spreadsheet.
At first glance this Microsoft Office application, debuted by Bill Gates in 1985 (as a Mac application, no less), seems relatively plain and simple, but don’t judge the book by its cover; contrary to the simple and quotidian image of Excel, many people underestimate the degree to which the tried and true spreadsheets can and are expanded on for any number of business software uses.
Excel is a poster boy for the concept of extensible and versatile software. Building off the central concept of being a matrix on which bits of text and numerical information can be logged, organized and manipulated, Microsoft has even extended the program’s capabilities into the programming world by including coding functionality through Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), a programming language.
VBA compatibility blows the door open on the amount of things Excel is capable of. Engineers and engineering schools use VBA tools in conjunction with Excel data sets to accurately simulate and visualize the flow of different fluids, while advanced statistical analysis and business intelligence tools like SPSS typically base their analytics off reams of data stored on humble spreadsheets.
You might be asking yourself just what sort of business functions Excel is capable of outside of the most basic record keeping functions. Here are a few examples:
Excel is already a great way of visualizing data and parsing it up into different categories, so the idea of using it as a CRM is all that surprising when you think about it.
As long as users are diligent about logging information into the spreadsheet as soon as it becomes relevant, an Excel file can easily perform many of the same functions of a proprietary CRM solution. Are you frustrated by your CRM system’s sluggishness or opacity when it comes to searching contact information for individual leads or organizations? A full-scale search in Excel is as easy as hitting Ctrl-F and typing in the name you need.
Similarly, if your sales team has been diligent in its data entry then you’re going to have a more or less complete matrix of information pertaining to each of your contacts. Using the filter column function the user can create custom views at will.
For example, if the user needs to produce a list of all leads who are in the discrete manufacturing sector AND have a marketing-related title AND were contacted in the first quarter of the year. As long as the spreadsheet has columns dedicated to these data sets then getting filtered views of all of them or any combination of them is possible.
The ability to apply mathematical equations to broad sets of values automatically is central to what makes Excel so indispensable for business use. From something as simple as tallying up check amounts for a gross sum of weekly bank deposits to advanced operations like applying progressive tax rates to payroll, you can do it in Excel.
Not only can many proprietary BI systems use Excel spreadsheets as source material, but Excel itself can use pivot tables to generate surprisingly sophisticated insights on data contained on multiple spreadsheet tabs.
One of the most basic, and useful, uses of pivot tables is to trace the frequency with which certain values show up (COUNTA). Again, with a little creativity, the potential for this tool is great:
The fact that Excel can also natively generate a whole panoply of different charts and graphs to model the data on your pivot tables means that you can also have the most colorful (and comprehensible) presentation at next month’s board meeting, all with the licensed copy of Microsoft Office that came pre-loaded on your work station.
Of course, there are limits. While Excel can be a great ad-hoc solution for a multitude of business needs, it’s important to remember that it’s ad-hoc–a stopgap solution for an unforeseen need. While Excel CRM or Excel Tax Software might work perfectly for a five-person bootstrap operation, part of the process of running a successful business is knowing when you need to swallow the expense and go for a full-scale overhaul of a system.
Vendors like FreshBooks make a primary market out of selling their solution to people coming straight off Excel, so the market, at least for office essentials like CRM and accounting, is highly attuned to this gray area of business users “growing out” of Excel.
For the rest of us, just make sure your columns are in symmetry and your categories properly labeled.
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