The 7-touch rule in Sales

l strongly recommend reading Atul Gawande’s piece in the 7/29 New Yorker on how innovations spread. He focuses on medicine – he is a surgeon after all. But his piece has wide resonance for innovators and salespeople in every field.

In explaining why some innovations spread rapidly, and others don’t, he differentiates between innovations which have immediate, positive effects and those which take a while for their benefits to be seen. The former category tends to spread faster.

In the mid-19th century, anesthesia was rapidly adopted, because it offered an immediate benefit to patients by reducing their pain, and to doctors, by making operations much less traumatic. By contrast, the use of antiseptic spray during operations was adopted far more slowly, despite its huge benefits in reducing infection in the operating room. The reason, Gawande writes, was that germs aren’t visible. Their effects take time to materialize. And doctors hated having to work in a mist of antiseptic spray.

“This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful. The global destruction wrought by a warming climate, the health damage from our over-sugared modern diet, the economic and social disaster of our trillion dollars in unpaid student debt—these things worsen imperceptibly every day. Meanwhile, the carbolic-acid remedies to them, all requiring individual sacrifice of one kind or another, struggle to get anywhere.”

If you’re in sales, it’s worth thinking about Gawande’s distinction. Is what you’re selling of immediate, tangible benefit? Or will the benefits take time for the user to appreciate? Then adapt your sales approach accordingly, perhaps using the 7-touch approach he describes later:

“In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

But technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors—who are notoriously stubborn—to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.”

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