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Excel Productivity Cheat Sheet: Top 11 Excel Functions to Optimize Workflow Efficiency

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Top Excel Functions

While more advanced and powerful data management solutions are available, Microsoft Excel is still a dominant tool in many businesses.

In fact, research shows that 62% of companies still rely on spreadsheets for business analytics. Spreadsheets are still a go-to data management solution, but they can also be time consuming to manage if you’re not leveraging at least some of the vast array of functions Microsoft has created to streamline frequent and repetitive tasks. With hundreds of Excel functions at your fingertips, it can seem overwhelming to learn the correct syntax to put them into use. However, tackling the most common functions can pay dividends in time savings and accuracy.

Here are 10 functions every Excel user should know:

1. VLOOKUP Function:

The VLOOKUP Function significantly speeds up the process when you need to find a specific value in a table or range of data by row. It simplifies the process of searching large tables by saving the time you would have spent manually searching for the information. It’s a more powerful version of the LOOKUP function, which can search one row or column.

As an example, a procurement manager can look up the price of a product using the product ID number. Or a human resources manager can look up an employee using the person’s employee number.

2. INDEX Function:

Use the INDEX Function when you want to return the value of a specific cell within a defined range, based on its column and row numbers. For example, in a project management spreadsheet that contains project tasks, deadlines and task owners, a manager could use this function to quickly create a summary for a specific team member by retrieving their upcoming tasks and deadlines.

3. SORT / SORTBY Function:

The SORT Function will easily sort the contents of a range or array by ascending or descending order. For example, if you work for a nonprofit organization and have a spreadsheet that contains donor information such as names, donation amounts, campaigns, and donation dates, you can sort the spreadsheet to identify your top donors and prioritize your campaign efforts based on results.

Similarly, the SORTBY Function is useful when you have related data in two different spreadsheets. Say you have one spreadsheet with donor names and contact details and another with donation amounts and dates. The SORTBY Function lets you sort your donors based on donation amounts even though the information resides in two different spreadsheet files. You can complete your task without having to combine the data into one spreadsheet.

4. FILTER Function:

Using the FILTER Function, you can filter a range of data based on the criteria you specify. Only data that meets your specified criteria is returned. For example, if you have a team of sales people and their bonuses are based on total sales revenue above a certain threshold, you can create a filter to quickly give you a list of bonus eligible employees.

5. IFERROR Function:

Every spreadsheet user knows the dreaded feeling that comes from having an error in their spreadsheet that returns a cryptic message like #REF! – which forces you to go on a hunt to identify what went wrong. Using the IFERROR Function you can make those error messages more meaningful and, therefore, easier to correct. 

For example, a project manager can use this function to identify when a task start date is incorrectly input as a date later than the due date. Rather than returning a generic error message, defining a more meaningful message like “Invalid Dates” can make the problem easier to identify and resolve.

6. WORKDAY / NETWORKDAYS Function:

The WORKDAY Function can streamline follow-up activities in the case of customer service or sales, for example, easy to stay on track. For example, if your sales process calls for following up with a prospect 3 business days after first contact, to generate the required follow-up date that excludes weekends and dates specified as holidays. This same function can calculate events like invoice due dates, or delivery times.

Similarly, you can use the NETWORKDAYS Function to calculate the number of days between two dates. This function is particularly helpful when you need to calculate the duration of project management tasks, or determine employee benefit accrual based on employment time.

7. TEXTBEFORE / TEXTAFTER Function

The TEXTBEFORE Function (and the TEXTAFTER Function) are useful when you’re working with longer strings of information. For example, if you’ve got a customer list formatted in a cell as Last Name, First Name, you can use the TEXTBEFORE Function to separate the name by specifying everything before the comma to create a new column of just the last name. Unlike the older LEFT, RIGHT, and MID Functions which relied on having a set number of characters (like a phone number of zip code) to split the text, the new functions are much more flexible.

8. CONCATENATE Function

There are times when rather than splitting strings of data, you’ll need to combine them. The CONCATENATE Function can help do just that. For example, a nonprofit campaign manager may want to create personalized thank-you emails for each donor that includes their name, donation amount and donation date. This function can combine that information into a single text string.

9. COUNTIF Function:

The COUNTIF Function is time saver when you need to count the number of cells that meet a certain criteria. For example, if you are responsible for IT asset management. Using this function you can identify the number of users with a certain software license that needs to be renewed. Or a nonprofit manager could identify donors contributing a specific amount or more in order to tailor outreach campaigns to major donors. 

10. UNIQUE Function

The UNIQUE Function returns a list of unique values from a specified range or array of cells. This function is useful for quickly eliminating duplicates, summarizing data and creating reports based on distinct values. For example, if you’re responsible for inventory management and have a spreadsheet that contains product names, product categories, invoice numbers, delivery dates and quantity in stock – but data entry errors have caused a double entry of invoice information. You can use this function to eliminate the duplicate and validate the inventory stock levels.

Leveraging the functions listed above can help you save time in managing the data you store in spreadsheets. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that regardless of your user knowledge Excel spreadsheets present challenges in today’s data-driven environment.

Spreadsheets present data accuracy and data security challenges if your workflows require multiple users to input and update information. And research shows an annual estimated growth in enterprise data collection of 42% from 2020-2022. The sheer volume of data coming in makes spreadsheets a less effective tool for tracking and managing critical data, and using it to gain important business insights to drive better decisions.

11. Building an Excel PivotTable to Analyze Data

An Excel PivotTable is a popular tool for summarizing and analyzing data in Excel. They allow users to visualize and manipulate the data. However, a PivotTable can fall short when it comes to handling large datasets, complexity, and providing deeper insights for business decision making. 

As the volume and complexity of data grow, these tables can become slow and cumbersome. They are also limited in terms of real-time data access and collaboration, which can result in outdated or inconsistent information being used for analysis. In comparison, cloud-based, no-code database apps can perform complex, cross-table, and aggregate queries on huge datasets to provide up-to-date, collaborative information.

If you’re ready for a more robust data management solution with real-time updates and at-a-glance analytics and insights, it’s time to explore no-code database apps and what they can do for your business.