4 Simple DIY steps to Better Reports
Every Report should drive good decisions
But are your reports:
* Badly Laid Out?
* Hard to Interpret?
* Difficult to compare or see changes over time?
An excellent business report provides quick and easy access to the most important information – the key facts you need right now to understand exactly how things are tracking” – at a glance, plus it enables you to dig down into key details about causes and timing etc.
Unfortunately for them, many business owners work with generic reporting layouts – despite the fact each and every one of these people will then declare their business as far from generic.
In this day and age of packaged computer accounting systems the vast majority of managers and owners rely on the auto-produced reports, generated from the system’s standard General Ledger/Chart of Accounts. This oddly seems to apply to both big and small business – I have seen both Quickbooks and SAP implemented without anyone giving a second thought to the structure of the ledger or the information needed by management. These systems are designed by Accounts with the primary goal of ensuring compliance requirements are met.
Compliance is important, don’t get me wrong, but to calculate taxes an Accountant only needs to look at the final number at the bottom of a Profit and Loss Report (otherwise known as an Income Statement or P&L). Their job is to ensure the final Profit figure is correct…. If the rest of the P&L is a hotch-potch of headings and bad labels it doesn’t affect their ability to do the tax calculation – as long as the total at the bottom is accurate.
On the other hand a Business manger needs their financial details in the best shape for quick and easy review and interpretation.
The Best Reports have taken these 4 factors into consideration:
1. FUNCTION – Useful Information
Step 1 – Think about what is the most important info for your business?
Try to keep any basic report (and especially a Profit and Loss) all on one page. In addition, keep a half-page summary version available for executives and board meetings, and another two page version (one page with Sales and Direct Costs and the second page for Indirect Costs), as a more detailed report for managers.
The two page version can then be split so the Sales managers see their parts, and the Operations mangers see their parts; each person gets the part of the report that will best help them make more profitable decisions.
Remember also to ensure you standardise your wording to make the report easily understood – Jargon is the biggest enemy of clarity.
Also, use “Bundles” to make key areas of your report easily recognisable. Any number that is generally more than 5% – 15% of cost should be appearing on your Profit and Loss Report (Income Statement) as a separate line item; and items less than that get summarised into bundles… What this means is if any of your account totals are very small, rather than list them out separately, or mush them all together in “General Expenses”, bundle them with other similar small costs instead. For Example
- Staff amenities, training, entertainment = STAFF CARE
- Postage and Couriers, = DELIVERY
- Travel, and Motor Vehicles = TRANSPORT
- Rates, Repairs and small assets = FACILITIES
What you bundle will depend on the size of your business, and the relative size of the costs – the above examples would most likely apply to a mid-sized business – the key here is to only bundle costs that are both similar and very small.
2. FORM – Useful Layout
Step 2 – Think about what is the best way to express Business operations?
The outcomes here will depend on the flexibility of the software you are using – but even a simple excel sheet can be setup with sub-totals and summaries.
In larger systems like SAP General ledger codes can be mapped to total within headings, but it remains better to also group codes as like with like – it makes the details easier gloss through.
Don’t forget Step 1– whatever is most important should be most obvious!
Start with Revenue and consider flagging separate types of revenue by allocating several different lines, some headings you may consider including are:
- Sales – Do you have a variety of brands, products, or services with each needing to be visible? Or, will just one line, with everything jumbled together, be sufficient to clearly understand your sales?
- Returns – do you have a lot of returns and refunds for your sales? If so, it might be appropriate to show these as a separate line (instead of simply removed from the reported sales total – which is the default for most accounting systems).
- Outlets – Do you have a variety of Locations, Stores, and Customers to track, or will just one line be satisfactory?
- Direct Expenses are related directly to manufacturing and stocking goods/services for sale. For every unit sold there is a clear connection to the amount of direct cost involved to enable that sale.
- Indirect Expenses are for operating the business as a whole – e.g. receptionist’s salary. For every unit sold there is a small unconnected portion of these cost involved.
3. FEATURES – Useful tools for Analysis
Step 3 – Think about what could be relevant comparisons?
There are two types of comparisons; Direct Comparisons and Proportional Comparisons.
Direct Comparisons: where one number is directly compared to another. This is most common when comparing different periods against each other such as ‘this year we made $100,500 in Sales versus only $85,200 last year’ – which translates to ‘we are selling quite a lot more this year’. If this is a weekly report, include two prior weeks, if it is a monthly report for July include June as the prior month PLUS include July from the prior year. Play around with the comparatives, cycle through several different comparisons periods:
- – Week 1 – This week v last week
- – Week 2 – This month v last month
- – Week 3 – This week v this time last year
- – Week 4 – This month v this time last year
and then start back again.
Proportional comparisons: a relationship of one number against another with respect to relative size. This is most commonly expressed as a percentage. This is a really effective way of gauging performance because percentages relate two, variables to each other.
Percentages are easy – all they say is ‘Electricity costs equal 2% of Sales’ which translates to ‘for every $100 dollars sold $2 is spent on electricity’ or ‘for every $2 spent in electricity, we need to make $100 in sales’ (these are the same thing expressed in different ways).
Total sales is a useful figure to know, but percentage of total sales per sales person enables you to highlight strengths and weaknesses to lead improvements. At a minimum your report should automatically include the following standard Performance percentages:
- Gross Margin percentage
- Profit Margin Percentage
And ideally you should also be able to include a column for % Sales.
Familiarity and comparison will reveal trends; trends will enable you to quickly able to spot something odd and investigate (it may end up as a simple coding error), or react effectively to a price hike – best quickly change suppliers or increase your own prices, instead of bemoaning a profit drop several months after your suppliers increased their prices.
4. FEEL – make it look lovely
Step 4 – Think about what irks you in your reports?
If your system allows it, and many do, spend a tiny bit of time making the fonts nicer, and the layout sexier! If you have an allergic reaction every time you see Times New Roman font, then you are most likely never going to look any further into your details.
Formatting is an often overlooked part of creating great reports – but can greatly add any users level of dis-inclination.
Ideally, if you are running an SME you will look at the summary report every week and all the details monthly. It should only take 3-5 minutes to run it and check it and the benefits are exponential.
(If you don’t know how to run your own P&L Report as and when you need, I challenge you to ask your accountant/bookkeeper/assistant/advisor to show you how this week – the extra knowledge at your fingertips whenever you want will be very inspiring)
If you are a smaller business and do your own data entry – then discipline yourself to summarise your expenses into the same format each month/quarter; creating a standardised information base from which to compare.
Designing perfect reports assumes you have already overcome the very obvious issue of:
“rubbish in = rubbish out”,
and are confident that the information basis for the report is being entered accurately and in a timely manner.
Your Reports are not locked in stone; they should evolve as your needs change!
That isn’t to say that your data entry and collection should vary frequently. If you capture as much information in as granular a way as possible it becomes quick and easy to construct simple business reports that follow these rules and provide critical and current decision-making tools.