Growing businesses have a lot of decisions to make, all while keeping an eye on the bottom line. From staffing and software to marketing and operations, decisions need to be well informed, which means data is essential.

Data can be unruly, however, and translating numbers into reports and insights isn’t in everyone’s wheelhouse. That’s why more and more small businesses are turning to freelance Business Intelligence (BI) analysts to help them get a handle on their data and turn that data into actionable insights.

In our article What Is Business Intelligence?, we discussed what BI is, how it’s evolving, and how it’s helping to fuel today’s increasingly data-driven mindset. Here, we’ll look at how top-rated Upwork freelancer and Power BI developer Stephanie Embree helps her small-business clients move the needle with data—and how BI analysis can enable you to do the same.

What Does a BI Analyst Do?

BI analysts are liaisons between you and your data. If you have unanswered questions, they know where to look to answer them. If you have goals, they know the data to pull to help guide your strategy. If your data is a black box you don’t even know the contents of, they can help with that too.

From a nuts-and-bolts perspective, BI analysts will merge all your data from various sources and use software to pull analytics to find patterns and trends. Those insights are delivered back to you in reports and visualizations—“data storytelling” that’s easy to process and share.

BI analysts have both technical and data backgrounds. Embree’s background was in Microsoft SQL when she began experimenting with visualization tools, which led her to Microsoft Power BI. There are lots of business intelligence tools out there, but Embree gravitated to Power BI for its ease of use and integrations with third-party apps and services. She’s found the pricing model aligns well with SMBs’ needs, and it’s intuitive, therefore easy to train clients to use.

Ways to Engage a BI Analyst

Any business—regardless of size, industry, or goals—can benefit from BI analysis. Embree’s clients are typically small to midsize businesses and range from landscape design and real estate companies to marine safety organizations and a municipal mosquito control agency.

Here are a few ways she helps clients get more from their data.

1. Gain more visibility into marketing efforts—and plan for next year’s campaigns.

Sometimes your data requests may be straightforward; other times requests are more sophisticated. “One client wanted to see the ROI of their marketing efforts for the year to help determine where to allocate budget next year. I pulled specific data around leads and contacts and compared them with the results of past marketing efforts to determine ROI,” Embree explains, a project that required her to merge data from numerous sources including QuickBooks and HubSpot. She used Power BI’s “connectors,” which make integrating with external sources possible.

“That data will help him decide how to spend next year’s marketing budget, based on what was working and what wasn’t,” she says.

2. Get a customized dashboard created for self-service data access and reporting.

“People are understanding that their data is there to tell them a story,” Embree says. “The questions are just waiting to be asked.”

What was once left to analysts is now effectively in anyone’s workflow thanks to tools such as Power BI. Embree frequently sets up Power BI implementations for clients with customized dashboards and real-time reports they can access and generate as needed. “Power BI is easy to use once the initial setup is done and the data is imported. The drag-and-drop visuals make it really easy to add filtering to data and get whatever you need out of it.”

Embree adds, “Giving clients the ability to create relevant reports is one of my primary goals, especially when data is hard to wrangle and comes from multiple sources.” She determines who needs access to the report, tailors it for them, and offers additional development support when necessary. “Making reports accessible and shareable allows departments to explore each other’s data and creates better decision-making company-wide.”

Depending on your needs, customization may require additional development support. Embree is on hand to help clients with more-complex calculations and fluctuating needs, such as adding new currencies or data streams. “I continue to manage some of my clients’ Power BI implementations over time,” she notes, “whether they need new data for new business needs or have added new processes that need to be incorporated.”

3. Merge disparate data sources for a better view of your business.

Modern data doesn’t always fit neatly into tables—and it can take a bit of work to make different data sources logically connect. Analysts can help with this, drawing connections you can’t get just by simply sifting through a spreadsheet. Embree says this is a big part of her work. “For most of my projects, I have to connect at least three data sources, but I’m constantly bringing together data from different sources.” These could be HubSpot and QuickBooks, as in the earlier example, or SharePoint, a spreadsheet, Salesforce, or data on a local computer.

“A client with a delivery service wanted more visibility into how they were doing: tracking how on-time delivery drivers were and how it affected customer experience ratings, results of surveys, and ultimately, sales.” This required Embree to compile a number of disparate data sources that weren’t necessarily congruent to paint a full picture.