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September 19, 2019

Case study: Data-driven insights help sales managers spend more time empowering teams to succeed

Embracing Microsoft’s company-wide digital transformation mission, sales leaders in Australia harnessed behavioral analytics to quantify workplace activities, and uncovered opportunities to optimize their time.

Successful leaders understand that their people are their most valuable resource, and that employees must be empowered to spend their time on the most high-value activities in order for the business to succeed. This is true in theory, but in reality, it can be challenging for leaders to optimize for high-value activities when other processes and demands constantly compete for people’s time. It’s even more challenging to allocate time strategically if leadership doesn’t have an objective, data-driven view into how the teams work, who they work with, and what they work on. In sales, how individual sellers and managers spend their time is directly tied to customer satisfaction and business outcomes.

In 2018, the leadership in Microsoft’s Australia subsidiary found itself facing a challenge and an opportunity. The leadership team believed it had great front-line managers who knew what activities they should be doing to empower their sellers and unlock sales. Yet both leaders and managers felt that process-oriented, rhythm-of-business activities were getting in the way of these most high-value actions. The sentiment among sales managers was that they had gone from managing people to managing processes. And the stakes were high: Australia needed the support and leadership of front-line managers to make its transformation successful.

Implementing a large organizational transformation can easily lead to process getting in the way of execution. We were headed down that path before Workplace Analytics gave us the data to reflect and course-correct.

Steven Worrall, Area Vice President, Microsoft Australia

Of course, no business can run without process—the question, which leaders at most companies across industries can easily relate to, is how much is needed and what is the business cost of too much time spent on non-customer-focused activities? Microsoft’s Australia leaders knew that they needed to figure out how to measure their theory and, hopefully, uncover a way to better optimize their people’s time so that managers could more effectively do their most important sales-enablement work.

The timing was good: the challenge and opportunity for the Australia sales organization arose against the backdrop of Microsoft’s broader transformation. In 2017, Microsoft undertook a major overhaul of its 40,000-person sales organization in order to optimize the massive opportunities from the migration of computing to the cloud. The changing market, a new product mix, and the shift from a licensing to a subscription model meant that the company needed to transform many aspects of how it went to market, including how its sales teams worked. As part of this transformation, the sales organization undertook a global process to increase the quality of sales pipeline data to drive data-driven decision-making.

In their region, Australia leaders knew that if they better understood how managers spent their time, they could make targeted adjustments and ultimately become more agile, foster better relationships with customers, and unlock more sales in this evolving sales landscape.

Behavioral analytics offer a solution

Against this backdrop, Australia’s sales leadership was ready to fully embrace new data sources as an innovative way of tackling seemingly intractable challenges. Leaders decided to launch a behavioral-analytics-based pilot project across the sales organization using Microsoft’s own Workplace Analytics (WpA) product, a powerful tool that analyzes de-identified, aggregated metadata from everyday work in Microsoft Office 365 to surface a set of powerful, customizable, and objective metrics that describe how work gets done.

Leaders saw the potential of a WpA pilot project to test the product’s capabilities and compile evidence to prove that understanding workplace behaviors can lead not only to better time management but to better business outcomes.

Microsoft’s Australia sales managers, who had a reputation for welcoming new processes and technologies, were ready and open to identifying how they could make incremental changes over time to improve their teams’ sales performance. The expectation was that they could minimize time spent in low-value activities, spend more time on efforts that would benefit customer relationships, and have enough time to meaningfully coach their teams.

Goals of the time-optimization program:

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      Derive objective evidence to support anecdotal beliefs about time allocation

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      Identify inefficiencies in processes and behaviors

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      Define a path for effective change

First up, the project team, comprised of representatives from the Australia team and Microsoft’s WpA Center of Excellence, needed to categorize managers’ time and assign a value to each activity. Using data such as email subject lines, meeting durations, attendee lists, and meeting recurrences, along with historical organization data and manager surveys, the team defined high-value and low-value activities and categorized them via assigned keywords. The team then made use of artificial intelligence (AI) within Workplace Analytics to identify additional keywords, and it iterated and refined the logic to classify each meeting and activity into one of the buckets.

Front-line managers consistently say they need more time for team coaching. We were able to prove how managers spent their time, and where to pare away lesser-valued activities—making more time available for coaching and mentoring.

Monica Kelly, Intelligent Cloud Sales Director, Microsoft Australia

Evidence pinpoints time inefficiencies and opportunities

Once this framework for classifying work was in place, the team was eager to see if the Australia leaders’ initial hypothesis—that their managers were spending too much time on low-value, non-customer-focused activities—was correct. Would hard data confirm what sales managers and leaders believed anecdotally to be the blockers to better sales success?

When analyzed, the WpA data revealed specific inefficient patterns of behavior, such as meetings scheduled with an inaccurate or inappropriate list of attendees, redundant meetings covering the same or similar agenda items, and an overabundance of time spent preparing for those meetings.

To genuinely understand and document the Australia sales subsidiary’s meeting habits, the team further used WpA to do a deep dive on rhythm-of-business meetings—those that involve work around processes, status updates, documentation, and operations, but that do not directly pertain to customer relationships or managers’ leadership efforts—identifying key characteristics of these. Two interesting insights:

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      Meeting duration: 81 percent of meetings were scheduled for 1 hour or less. This wasn’t considered a problem.

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      Meeting size: 37 percent of meetings were considered large meetings, with more than nine attendees, and 25 percent of meetings were considered small meetings, with only two attendees. The small meetings were often extraneous, caused because large, expensive, and ineffective meetings required follow-up.

Once business process meetings were better defined and manager time classified, the data surfaced in the 2018 pilot program confirmed and quantified what the sales managers had intuited were blockers to their leadership success. The team found that more than a quarter of managers’ collaboration time was spent in rhythm-of-business meetings. Leaders were surprised that only 24 percent of managers’ meeting time was allotted to external customers. And their assumptions about forecasting tasks were validated, as analytics showed that 12 percent of managers’ collaboration time was spent in forecasting-related activities.

An interesting pattern in meeting data was uncovered, showing a correlation between time spent in lower-valued business meetings, such as weekly status calls, and the time required for meeting preparation every week. This red-flagged activity suggested that the sales managers could benefit by reducing time in those activities.

Trusted Workplace Analytics data gives leaders and managers a path toward change

The program’s findings were immediately put to use, and the journey to meet sales managers’ time-management needs, while aligning with Microsoft’s digital-transformation mission and better connecting with customers, began to take shape. The subsequent FY19 change program aimed to reduce time spent in, and preparing for, rhythm-of-business (now called “rhythm-of-connection” [RoC] by the Australia team) activities and to help ensure the hours invested were used efficiently. The plan was rooted in three core principles:

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      Clarity in expectations from leadership

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      Efficiency of meeting preparation and execution

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      Transparency and timely information flow

By instituting new practices and expectations, leaders intended to shift the culture of work within the organization, thereby empowering managers to allocate their time effectively and providing the structural support to do so. They provided generalized meeting guidance to the entire Microsoft Australia office but took extra steps with one job function to truly evaluate whether there was a correlation between meeting process changes and time spent in meetings.

Those process changes included:

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      Reduced meeting attendee lists to bring down meeting size

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      Assigned roles to meeting attendees

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      Followed meeting agenda templates tailored to meeting types and objectives

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      Sent meeting roles and meeting agendas in advance

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      Distributed detailed notes after meetings

When the team measured outcomes, it found that across the board, as the result of this new meeting guidance, most functions saw a decrease in RoC meetings. But for the experimental group that had pushed forward the meeting process interventions, that reduction was significantly larger than for any of the other groups, with a decline of nearly half: from 39 percent to 21 percent.

As the culture shifted, leaders kept measuring and quantifying their impact with data. Prior to running the change program, 39 percent of meeting time was going to RoC and forecasting meetings alone. A year later, that number was 25 percent. And Workplace Analytics showed that the time saved went directly where it was supposed to—toward growth, mentorship, and strategic activity. At the same time, process-oriented meeting time decreased by 15 percent, time dedicated toward people management increased by 6 percent, team-activity time increased 5 percent, and strategy activities increased by 4 percent.

Bar chart showing internal meeting time by type

Leaders heard from managers that they especially appreciated being able to use the time gained to better implement their leadership skills and coach their teams toward sales success. And as new challenges and opportunities arise, leaders can continue to measure, experiment, test, and adjust.

We identified that managers were spending 39 percent of their time on internal processes. As soon as we saw the real business impact of these processes, we were able to make a change and ensure managers spent less time managing processes and more time supporting their teams and leading our transformation efforts.

Steven Worrall, Area Vice President, Microsoft Australia

Sales teams thrive when managers have the time and tools to support them in a meaningful way. Amidst a major sales transformation, Workplace Analytics provided the Australia leaders with powerful, customizable data to quantify daily activities and reveal opportunities for better time management—resulting in more quality time for teams, people, and strategy. Without Workplace Analytics, change leaders could have rolled out the same meeting guidance and change program, but they would not have had the mechanism to quantify people’s behavior and verify whether the program was working. This new data practice is helping to fuel a cultural shift in how work gets done, positioning the organization to be more agile, customer-focused, and successful in a dramatically changed landscape.