Life after CRM Implementation – Five Stages of Grief

Stages of Grief - What the heck does that have to do with sales?

If you’ve ever undergone significant loss in your life, you’re probably familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.

Kübler-Ross’ theory posits that before arriving at acceptance of a loss, we go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining and depression. The definition of “loss” can be expanded to anything we feel seriously about or that’s been a big part of our lives — a pet, job, standard of living, marriage, or even health insurance.

I’ve noticed something very similar going on with sales teams when I am working with them on effective use of a Customer Relationship Management, (CRM).

CRM systems have been around for years. Ideally, they increase revenue, visibility and make managing a sales pipeline and sales rep development more efficient. But sales teams don’t usually welcome them with enthusiasm.

I’ve seen it all —becoming indignant, anger, begging, depression, avoidance, arguments, excuses, absenteeism (missing meetings) — and if your company is using a CRM, you’ll probably see it too. In fact, you should expect it.

Why is that?

It makes sense: they’re being told to let go of the way they’ve always done their jobs and adapt to something significantly new. That’s a loss, and they’re naturally upset and fearful. Very rarely do I see the sales rep who arrives at the acceptance stage immediately seeing the benefits of the new program and its potential to jumpstart their sales and further develop their talents.

In every CRM training that I conduct, my promise is that by the end of the day the sales team will have a clearer picture of where their sales pipeline is than ever before. As we progress through the day, there is that moment when it becomes apparent that the team doesn’t have enough leads, or activity, in the pipeline to meet their revenue goals … that is when the stages of grief really become apparent. They grieve their previous sense of comfort that by the end of the quarter they will somehow reach their goals. But this sense of confidence has likely been based on hope versus reality.

Their emotional trajectory starts with denial, although some jump right into anger or bargaining by imploring their managers, not openly, to not force the new system on them. I don’t get caught up in the drama — I’ve learned to acknowledge it and try to help them work through it. They usually evolve into acceptance on some level, although some may leave the job, or be asked to leave.

There is another underlying problem with CRM implementation. Like most things that we accept, we need to see how this new thing will benefit us in order for us to even have a chance of using it. And even then there is no guarantee of effective use by the team. According to a recent Forrester survey, 42% of sales reps do not use their CRM. I would surmise there is an equal number who use the tool for not much more than contact management and/or to pacify a boss. 

Here are Kübler-Ross’s stages, and how they may show up in your sales team.

  • Denial: This is the earliest stage of loss, when we’re in shock, feeling numb and in utter disbelief of the bad news. Sales reps may not believe the company would do such a stupid thing. They don’t need, more accurately want, a CRM; it isn’t necessary and will only make more work for us. Furthermore, it is way too complicated for what we need, I can’t believe we are spending that much money on this.
  • Anger: This is the blame stage, where we lash out at anyone who seems to bear any sort of responsibility for our loss. In illness, it’s often loved ones, doctors, clergy, etc. Sales reps lash out at their managers, coworkers and company. Beware, most of us learned to not show anger directly while at work, but are trained to keep a lid on it. Anger typically shows up in statements like: “it doesn’t have this feature (fill in the blank) so this is not going to work”; “I’m having trouble with my device/internet (fill in the blank) so this isn’t going to work”; “can you modify this, (fill in the blank) or it is not going to work.”

They’re miffed at being asked to change their routine, input their sales data and activities into a program that may be accessible by other team members, managers and owners.

They may be mad at being put “on the spot” and being expected to do more.

If they’re struggling in their position, they’re mad and afraid that putting their daily activity into a log will expose how little they are doing.

Company rock stars might be mad that they’re being treated like kindergartners or seemingly being punished for non-performance by others.

Anger in loss is healthy and brings us closer to healing. So don’t freak out when staff throw tantrums, or more than likely, push back. Your resolve will be tested and this will present ample coaching opportunities.

  • Bargaining: This is the stage where we vow to clean up our lives or behave perfectly if only the condition will go away or our loved one’s life will be spared. In sales, reps might try to ask for special dispensation from the new technology because they’re too busy to update the system, or don’t understand it. They may try to cheat the CRM’s metrics by frequently logging in and making small changes to records since most CRM providers tend measure sales adaptation, i.e. use of the system, as time spent logged in and number of records modified.
  • Depression: In loss, this is the stage where we don’t feel we can go on after the loss. We might withdraw from people and feel this isn’t worth it. In sales, some reps might be late for appointments, miss meetings, not show up for work, become harder to locate, or not interact with the team. If they do interact, they may try to bring others down to their level by commiserating about the new technology and how it’s going to make their job a living hell. They might decide to quit or change careers. Remember, average tenure of a sales rep is about a year and a half.
  • Acceptance: This is the goal in working through any loss. It’s not bliss — the loved one doesn’t spring back to life, and we don’t suddenly become ecstatic about a death — but at least it doesn’t hurt as much. In sales, team members’ eyes open to the system, and they’re relieved to finally have an accessible place to keep track of their records, have a tool that will help them develop shortcoming and increase their overall performance and talents as a top sales rep.

The Afterlife

The role of sales leadership is key in terms of supporting, leading and moving people forward. It’s not about bludgeoning the salesperson to make things happen, but coaching them through the process. There’s a lot of fear behind their reactions that managers need to be prepared for and ready to act on quickly. Sales leadership walks through all the stages of grief as well, and the quicker leadership gets to acceptance, the quicker the team will follow.