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How to use Excel Data Model & Relationships



Have you ever been in a VLOOKUP hell?

Its what happens when you have to write a lot of vlookup formulas before you can start analyzing your data. Every day, millions of analysts and managers enter VLOOKUP hell and suffer. They connect table 1 with table 2 so that all the data needed for making that pivot report is on one place. If you are one of those, then you are going to love Excel’s data model & relationships feature.

Table relationships & Data model feature of Excel - cartoon

In simple words, this feature helps you connect one set of data with another set of data so that you can create combined pivot reports.

Practical Example – V(X)LOOKUP hell vs. Data Model heaven

Lets say you are looking sales data for your company. You have transaction data like below.

Example data

And you want to find out how many units you are selling by product category and customer’s gender.

Unfortunately, you only have product ID & customer ID.

With VLOOKUP Hell,

  1. You first fetch all the customer and product data and place them in separate ranges.
  2. Then write a vlookup formula to fetch product category, another to fetch customer gender.
  3. Then fill down the formulas for entire list of transactions.
  4. Now make a pivot table.

Assuming you have 30,000 transactions, you have to write 60,000 VLOOKUP formulas to create this one report!!!

With Data Model heaven,

  1. Create relationships between Sales, Products & Customer tables
  2. Create a pivot table

Creating a relationship in Excel – Step by Step tutorial

  1. Relationship feature in Excel 2013 data ribbon tab
    First set up your data as tables. To create a table, select any cell in range and press CTRL+T. Specify a name for your table from design tab. Read introduction to Excel tables to understand more.
  2. Now, go to data ribbon & click on relationships button.
  3. Click New to create a new relationship.
  4. Select Source table & column name. Map it to target table & column name. It does not matter which order you use here. Excel is smart enough to adjust the relationship.
    Creating a new relationship in Excel 2013 - how to?
  5. Add more relationships as needed.

Using relationships in Pivot reports & analysis

  1. Select any table and insert a pivot table (Insert > Pivot table, more on Pivot tables).
  2. Make sure you check the “Add this data to data model” check box.
    Adding a pivot table with data model in Excel 2013
  3. In your pivot table field list, check “ALL” instead of “ACTIVE” to see all table names.
  4. Select fields from various tables to create a combined pivot report or pivot chart

Example: Category & Gender Sales Report

  1. Add category to row labels
  2. Add gender to column labels
  3. Add quantity to values
  4. and your report is ready!
Example Pivot report made with Excel data model

Things to keep in mind when you using relationships

  • Same data types in both columns: Columns that you are connecting in both tables should have same data type (ie both numbers or dates or text etc.)
  • One to one or One to many relationships only: Excel 2013 supports only one to many or one to one relationships. That means one of the tables must have no duplicate values on the column you are linking to. (for example products table should not have duplicate product IDs).
  • You can add slicers too: You can slice these pivot tables on any field you want (just like normal pivot tables). For example, you can further slice the above report on customer’s profession or product’s SKU size.

Benefits of Data Model based Pivot Tables

Once you have a data model in spreadsheet, you will enjoy several benefits (apart from multi-table pivots that is). They are,

  • Distinct counts: This simple but often tricky to calculate number is easy to get once you have data model based pivot. Just go to value field settings and change the summary type to “Distinct count”. Here is a tip explaining how to get distinct counts in Excel pivots.
  • Measures & DAX: Once you have a Data Model, you can unleash the full Power Pivot features on your workbook. You can create measures (using DAX language) and calculate things that are otherwise impossible with regular Excel. Here is an example of percentage of something calculation with DAX & Data Model, to get started.
  • Pivots from data in other files & databases: You can combine data model with the abilities of Power Query to create pivots from data in other places. For example, you can make a pivot from sales data in SAP with customer data in CRM system. Here is an overview of what is Power Query?
  • Pivots from more than 1mn rows of data: You can connect to very large datasets and make pivots from them with the help of data model. Here is a demo of how to set up data model for 1+mn rows of data.
  • Convert Pivot Tables to formulas: Once you have a data model based pivot table, you can turn it in to a set of formulas. You can access this feature from “Analyze” ribbon. This will replace your pivot with a bunch of CUBE formulas. Here is an overview of CUBE formulas.

Drawbacks of Data Model:

Of course, its not all cup cakes and coffee with Data Model. There are a few drawbacks of data model based pivot tables.

  • Compatibility: Data model & relationship feature is available only in Excel 2013 or above. This means, you cannot create or share such pivot reports with people using older versions of Excel.
  • Not able to group data: In regular Pivot Tables, you can group numeric, data or text fields. But with data model pivot tables, you can no longer group data. You must create another table with the group mapping and use it as a relationship.

Download Example File

Click here to download Excel data model demo file. It contains 3 different tables and a combined pivot report (with slicer) to show you what is possible.

Do you use relationships?

Ever since discovering PowerPivot, I kind of stopped using VLOOKUP (or XLOOKUP) for most of my own analysis. Now that relationships are part of main Excel functionality, I am using them even more.

What about you? Are you using relationships & data model in Excel? What cool things are you doing with it? Share your tips with us using comments.

Want even more? Try PowerPivot

If you want even more out of your reports, then try PowerPivot. It is a new feature in Excel 2013 (available as add-in in Excel 2010) that can let you do lots of powerful analysis on massive amounts of data. Here is an introduction to PowerPivot.


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41 Responses to “How to use Excel Data Model & Relationships”

  1. Ashish Youngy says:

    Data is Excel 2013 behaves so much like a OLAP cube when using with PivotTables. And this is actually wow. Consider learning not just DAX but MDX too 🙂 Happy Excel

    @Chandoo.. Have a nice and safe time in US. Best Wishes. And when they are publishing your interview in Entrepreneur 🙂

  2. Buzz says:

    I have been using PowerPivot in Excel 2010. My understanding was (via PowerPivot Pro blog) that Power Pivot would NOT be available in Excel 2013 in all versions; my recollection is that it was only going to be available in certain enterprise subscription editions. Thus, for individual users, it will no longer be available? For that reason I have moved some of my projects to Tableau, and do not expect to upgrade to Excel 2013.
    Can you confirm the availability of Power Pivot for all Excel 2013 users , or will it be restricted and unavailable for some users?

  3. Oz says:

    Just this weekend I upgraded from Home Premium to Professional Plus and spent time with Power View and PowerPivot.

    Up to that point I never saw myself in VLOOKUP Hell, and it may not be going away any time soon. I'm surprised to discover how many of my clients are still on Excel 2003. And then I have Mac users who don't have a lot of this great stuff available to them at all.

    These are great features and I'm going to dive into the Data Models. Unfortunately, I suspect, for me, the practical use may be limited to blogposts because I can't teach Power View in my workshops or send a client a spreadsheet that has a Power View in it.

    • thundom says:

      Hi OZ,

      I think the Microsoft would only upgrade the excel to a certain level instead of making it so powerful that it might threat their BI product. You know these "powerful" stuff can be easily done with a entry level crystal reports version.

      Glad to listen to ur opinion on it.

      I spent quite some time and energy on Excel and used it a lot, but now I am focusing energy on BI software like crystal reports.

    • thundom says:

      We both know that based on the technology today. All the time we spend on the Macro and advanced function of Excel can be done easily with other softwares which costs only hundreds of bucks.

      • Hui... says:

        I don't think Excel tries to be the solver of all problems
        It is a generic tool
        Which for about 95% of people will do what they want 95% of the time
        There will always be specifics where specific custom software will do better than Excel
        It is the commonness of Excel which means that I can send a model to you and it will work , most of the time, that is its strength, of course combined with its flexility in being able to be adapted to suit most needs

        • thundom says:

          Hi Hui,
          You are right.


          for the business and individual, who spend too much resource on Excel to meet their BI requirements and other processing requests.

          Should they open their eyes to other ways to do it, in this age? Especially for many people try too much time to process stuff with thousands lines of macro programming.

          It is just as when human being created gun fire, the martial arts would not be that effective.

          Ppl need to be prodent when they choose their solution.

          • Hi guys, I just came across your conversation. I have an example of BI vs. Excel stuff. Here in Russia there is an ERP-system called "1C". It became a defacto standart for accounting, planning and BI / analytics. It is positioned as a flexible and powerful system and it really is.
            But its reporting abilities aren't user-friendly (or maybe just not me-friendly).
            Many reports require programming and all those SQL things, so that is common for a company to have a couple of programmers who develop and code those reports.
            So the common solution is to export data to Excel and then process it to be more suitable for further analysis or reporting.
            Well, it's obviously not a rule of thumb that special BI software can outperform Excel in day-to-day routine.

  4. Tris says:

    Hi Chandoo, thanks for publishing great Excel information. Pardon the ignorance as I havent used Data Model nor PowerPivot. But having seen your video clip on PowerPivot, how does Data Model differ from PowerPivot - the "process" seems familiar? Have a great day! And Excel to new heights! Regards,

  5. Nolberto says:

    Excellent posting, some pride themselves for having sheets with thousands of formulas or complicated formulas, but in the end the important thing is to work as little as possible.

    • Oz says:

      @Nolberto let's not gloat yet. Some people are forced to have thousands of complicated formulas when they don't have the fancy tools. I'm sad for the 2003 users who have to use SUMPRODUCT when the rest of us have SUMIFS available.

      In the end, I think the important thing is clean, trustworthy data--however you arrive at it. People survived more than 300 years with slide rules and paper. No PowerPivot for the Wright Brothers.

  6. koi says:

    hi chandoo,

    i added 2 column into sales, 1st column vlookup customer ID to CUST sheet to get the male or female, then 2nd column vlookup Product ID to Product sheet to get the product name, then after that i make pivot table out of sales sheet.

    but then the result is really different from yours

    the purposes is just try to do the vlookup vs add to data model to see if they get same result


  7. koi says:

    ups sorry, didnt see that you're filtering using slicer..then it is good now the result are same with less effort 🙂


  8. SPrasad says:

    Hi Chandoo, .I am interested to know whether we can build a star schema or snow flake data models through relations in Excel? (trying to correlate with Qlikview)

    • Chandoo says:

      Hi there,

      You can create a Star schema for sure. Snow-flake is possible too. As long as all relationships are one to many (or one to one) anything is possible.

      • Nestavaro says:

        What if customer.profession change its value after sometime?
        Supposed we have monthly data for Sales. What if one customer is a doctor in Feb, then a pilot in October, for example?

        How to build data model for such that situation?

        Thank you.

  9. Raghavendra Shanbog says:

    Hello ,
    I find this option similar to that of MS Access.
    In MS Access as well we have relationship concept and once you create a relationship, you can start creating number of queries based on that.
    But MS Access is not so user friendly and basically its database. Good that we are getting those options/functions in Excel.
    Thanks for sharing this info.

    Raghavendra Shanbog

  10. What is star schema and snow flake.??? Can we have next article on that if it is useful for us???

  11. Roberto says:

    Hi there, can anyone help? I tried testing this out in Excel using two tables. When I go to the Data tab the Relationships button does not appear at all. I am using Microsoft version 14.0.4760.1000, Microsoft Office Professional Plus 2010. Does this version have this capability? Or is there an add-in required?

  12. […] even a layperson can perform if they have the almighty Excel 2010 and PowerPivot installed. Or Excel 2013′s Data Model, which lets you mash up data from Excel Tables and serve them up directly as PivotTables with not a […]

  13. Chandeep Chhabra says:


    The dates grouping feature does not seem to work in Data Model. Is that true or am I making a mistake somewhere?

  14. Jay says:

    I don't think this is really for "lookups"...

    Try creating a pivot with sale ID and customer name in row fields. It will give you ALL customer names per sale ID.

    You'd need to use RELATED function in a new column in powerpivot if you want something equivalent to "vlookup"

  15. Aslam says:

    Please explain the difference between data model and power pivot, the functions of both of them are different and similar

  16. […] Handling large volumes of data in Excel—Since Excel 2013, the “Data Model” feature in Excel has provided support for larger volumes of data than the 1M row limit per worksheet. Data Model also embraces the Tables, Columns, Relationships representation as first-class objects, as well as delivering pre-built commonly used business scenarios like year-over-year growth or working with organizational hierarchies. For several customers, the headroom Data Model is sufficient for dealing with their own large data volumes. In addition to the product documentation, several of our MVPs have provided great content on Power Pivot and the Data Model. Here are a couple of articles from Rob Collie and Chandoo. […]

  17. Bernadette Savage says:

    I need to use a slicer to allow a user to select vendor by name. In the background, I need to obtain the vendor ID to link to multiple datasets where the name may not be spelled consistently. Any advice?

  18. Andrea says:

    I've tried this in Excel 2016. It works great.
    I can even create Cube Formulas on the Data model after I've inserted the pivot table.
    Just for the fun of it, I tried to see if I could do Cube Formulas without creating the pivot table in advance. I can define Cube members, but it seems as if the measure part is playing tricks on me.

    I can't get a Cube Value for Chocolates sold to Male customers.
    With the Pivot created the formula looks like this (and works fine)
    =CUBEVALUE("ThisWorkbookDataModel";"[Customer].[Gender].&[Male]";"[Product].[Category].&[Chocolates]";"[Measures].[Sum of Quantity]")

    Does anyone know how I can solve this, or am I asking the impossible?

  19. Kwabena Anaafi says:

    I want to see the video on this topic

  20. nestavaro says:

    What if customer.profession change its value after sometime?
    Supposed we have monthly data for Sales. What if one customer is a doctor in Feb, then a pilot in October, for example?

    How to build data model for such that situation?

    Thank you.

    • Chandoo says:

      In such case, you need to make relationships based on two columns. This kind of feature is not supported in Excel. You can use Power Query to merge tables based on multiple columns and return a consolidated giant table to Excel for reporting.

  21. nestavaro says:

    Is it able in MS Access?
    I have never used access before.

  22. faisal says:

    thanks chandooo your article is very helpfull for troubling peoples' especially in office environment under boss pressure.

  23. Ron says:

    Here is an introduction to PowerPivot.

    The link above is broken

  24. Venkatesh says:

    Hi. This has really taken my interest.. I have huge data tables to work with...and I use vlookup to fetch certain data. I have different data in different sheets...

    Like customer sales (customer code, product code,qty, piece rate, total amount, branch code) data in one sheet
    Branch details in another (branch code, branch address, state , region)
    Customer Geographical Data in third sheet (region, region name)
    Product details in fourth sheet (product code, product description and related)

    Now I use a vlookup to get branch name, state and product name respectively into my main sheet.

    Now what I want is

    customer code, product code,qty, piece rate, total amount, branch code) data in one sheet, branch address, state , region, region name, product description

    Can't his be done thru data model... I tried but it's not working... Eitherway, I will gonthru thr session on e again and give a try... Any help, is appreciated. Thankyou

  25. Achyutanand Khuntia says:

    Dear All,

    i am striving to do reverse relationship in Power pivot ,

    example : -

    1 - Data sheet
    2. - Source data

    step to stops - import first data sheet in power piovt and then source data , made relationship with both sheet , after created relationship i am able to do put related formula in source data sheet only (=releted('Source data'[Amount]), if i go to put formula in data sheet , parameter of Source data are not visible ,

    could someone educate me how can i do , and utilize related formula in data sheet.

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