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The 5 Deadly Stages of Dealing with Multi-channel Marketing Solution Implementation Problems

by David Bernard, Managing Director of DB Marketing Technologies

Let’s say your team has just purchased a new Multi-channel Marketing solution. And let’s say your team did everything right in selecting it (which, come on, it probably didn’t or couldn’t, because there’s always a pencil pusher in the organization opting for a short-cut or spending cut). But let’s say the team got it all right: they performed in-depth requirements gathering, developed a detailed and well-crafted RFP; took the vendor candidates through a textbook selection process, had stakeholders participate in hands-on product testing, and finally chose what the team considered the best possible solution for the company. Yet when it's time to implement the solution, it doesn’t work well at all. What do you do?

I have seen so many CRM, Marketing, and IT executives make crazy errors when solution implementation goes wrong – particularly when they had a hand in the selection process.  While perfection eludes us all, many of the executive errors were completely avoidable. And in many cases, these executives willfully resisted making the necessary changes to avoid catastrophe.  In reviewing these cases, I have found that an alternate application of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ “Five Stages of Grief” helps us understand what drives executives to harm their organizations by sticking with a decision/solution that is clearly failing. And hopefully, as you read this, you too will see the signs and, if necessary, intervene on your or a colleague’s behalf.

The stages, popularly known by the acronym “DABDA,” include:

1.     Denial — "Everything is working fine. This implementation failure can't be happening, not with the fantastic solution I have pulled together."

When a Marketing executive invests in a given solution, whether it is engaging a Marketing Services Provider (MSP), choosing a SaaS provider or approving a specific approach to leverage in-house resources, a huge amount of political capital is at stake along with significant budget dollars. Where under normal circumstances this executive may have been rigorous in interpreting patterns of errors and glitches that may indicate deeper issues, with this significant investment, a certain amount of objectivity disappears
and ego appears.  At this stage, executives more readily dismiss suggestions of structural issues, outwardly taking a wait and see approach but inwardly avoiding any suggestion that their initiative may be flawed.

The Denial stage is the earliest stage, so it is also the most critical.  Corrective action taken at this point will have the greatest impact on minimizing the damage caused by the flawed solution, yet this is the phase where the executive will likely bring the greatest resistance.

Remediation (making the fix)
Executives need to untether themselves from the solution. They made a decision with the best information they had.  If the solution is not working, it’s only their fault if they DON’T fix it. But how many of us are mature enough to get out of our own way? So if the executive remains personally vested in the solution and denial continues, team members should not curtail their efforts to maintain a forensic view of day-to-day events and errors. This is how the team will identify the cause of the mistakes, once they become too large for the executive to ignore.  It should be noted that a prolonged Denial phase can cause significant harm to both the executive and the company by preventing corrective action.

Anger —"How can this happen with this fantastic solution? Who is to blame?!"

As errors pile up and business requirements are not met, the executive enters the second stage, Anger. Once in the second stage, the executive acknowledges the existence of issues and their potential impact on the company. Feeling personally betrayed, the executive still refuses to see a flaw in the overall solution, forcing the assignment of external blame.  During the Anger stage, the executive is volatile, incented to levy blame on anyone speaking against the solution, whether they are internal stakeholders or external partners. This is a dangerous period for the executive’s team members - any one of them could be thrown under the bus to deflect blame.


In addition to continuing to prevent identification and application of corrective measures, the Anger stage inflicts harm on the executive’s relationship with the team.  Assigning blame destroys trust which has an ongoing effect on the executive, the team and the company, lasting long after the issues are solved. Finger pointing also makes the executive look weak to his or her superiors. Rather than showing a command of a difficult situation, the executive is lashing out.

Team members will need to assemble complete data that reveals comprehensive proof of the core issues involved to counter misplaced blame and provide context for the executive. Here is the executive’s opportunity to once again take control of the situation, exchanging anger for constructive problem solving fervor. This allows the team to go deep and develop a solution remediation plan. But most executives won’t do this. It’s much easier to play the blame game.

Bargaining — "What can we do to make this
work? Let’s fix the immediate issues."

Failing to remediate in stage two, errors become too numerous to ignore, and the executive is starting to look bad to the organization for backing  what appears to be a lemon of a solution and, even worse, not doing anything about fixing it. In the third stage, the executive begins to see that fixes have to be made, but still refuses to see fundamental flaws in the solution.  As a result, corrective efforts are limited to short term fixes and not fundamental re-thinking or correction of the solution.  The third stage plays out the executive’s hope that the solution can be perceived as a success so long as ongoing errors are continually fixed.               

Reliance on short term fixes is tantamount to a game of whack-a-mole.  You fix a problem, and shortly after, another problem emerges because the root cause has not been corrected. Executives in this stage force their team and their company down the path of continual break-fix events, which is costly and disruptive to the company.

Develop a Comprehensive Remediation Plan, which may include a comprehensive review of the assumptions and decisions that have been made (vendors and tools selected, scopes of work, requirements relied upon) as well as an assessment of the solution.  When the executive pushes for short term fixes, comply but also continue to propose the Comprehensive Remediation Plan. Show the executive the time and cost-savings from a more in-depth examination of what is going wrong and fixing the root problem. Here the executive either wakes up and smells the coffee or falls into stage four.

Depression — "This is clearly more of an issue than I thought. I’m in trouble. Is there any way out of this where I don’t look like a failure?"

By the fourth stage, the executive is pretty far down the rabbit hole and there will be quite a bit of pain digging out. At this stage, the executive begins to understand the necessity of significant action, even though that action may have negative consequences personally. This makes for one unhappy senior manager. The Depression stage usually sets in at the end of the Bargaining Stage.  As short-term fixes are being executed, the executive recedes, stops attending meetings, and lets things go. 


The Depression stage simply delays the implementation of corrective measures and prolongs “Bargaining,” forcing the company to continue to invest in throw-away, short-term fixes. 


Give the executive a way out. The team should continue to optimize its Comprehensive Remediation Plan, and continue to council the executive on its benefits. As for the executive, “Snap out of it!” Re-engage with your team and get on board with the Comprehensive Remediation Plan. You still have a job. You might not, if you don’t get ahold of this situation. 

Acceptance — "Okay, it’s time to make a change!"


Finally! In this last stage, executives let go of their pet solution and make the significant changes needed.

Unfortunately, executives likely sustain significant damage to their position in the company by the time they reach the Acceptance stage.  The solution has taken its toll on the organization, driving up errors and costs.  In addition, the executive’s behavior through these stages will likely have made a lasting negative impact with team members and stakeholders.  Many will come to see that injury was avoidable had the executive handled this project differently. This will sting.


Implementation of the Comprehensive Remediation Plan should begin immediately.  Depending on the outcome, selection of new suppliers, vendors and solutions may be necessary.  The executive who sponsored the original solution may or may not be leading the initiative depending on the collateral damage from his or her journey through the five stages. If the executive is lucky enough to be given a second chance, he or she needs to remember that addressing problems when they arise and getting out ahead of them, will minimize errors, keep costs down, and demonstrate leadership.

The take away here is just because you pick a solution doesn’t mean that solution has to define you.  Say to yourself and those on the solution selection team at the outset, “We are all making this decision based on the best information we have. There are no guarantees here. As information is updated during implementation, we will revise our assumptions accordingly, address issues immediately, and ensure the best possible outcome for the company.” Then do that!

For more information about how DBMT® can help your company with Vendor  Solution Selection and Implentation , please click here or email us at info@dbmt.com or call us at 212-717-6000.


5 Stages of Dealing with Multi-channel Marketing Solution Errors 


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