Last week's New Yorker magazine includes an article by Atul Gawande describing how innovation spreads. While we are accustomed to think of technology as "changing the world," those changes only take place because of, well, salespeople.

As Gawande explains:

"In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter...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."

This concept that technology changes the world is fundamentally flawed, however.

"People follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up.  Every change takes effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process." (Emphasis mine.)

In other words, innovation spreads from person-to-person, even when people are made aware of that innovation through mass media. That's why advertising a crummy product is always a waste of money.

Think about it!  The iPhone became popular not because Steve Jobs said it was insanely great (he said the same thing about Apple TV, after all) but because early adopters recommended it to their friends, who recommended to their friends, and so forth.

Which leads us to salespeople.

While some innovations may go viral (i.e. spreading from person to person), most innovations require a salesperson to help customers go through the often-difficult process of changing how they behave.

Gawande points out that this kind of handholding requires building a relationship first, and only then, after there's a relationship, are customers willing to consider changing they way they do things.

Gawande tells the story of asking a pharmaceutical sales rep "how he persuaded doctors--who are notoriously stubborn--to adopt a new medicine."  The rep told him that "Evidence is not remotely enough...however strong a case you may have."

This, incidentally, is why the entire "relationship selling is dead so wow the customer with your brilliant insights" concept (see "The Challenger Sale") is so ridiculously inept.  Truth: if you can't build a relationship, you won't sell anything to anybody.

Gawande's pharmaceutical rep was a believer in the old sales theory of "the rule of seven touches," where you have to "touch" the customer seven times, so that they know you, might trust you, and trusting you, might try (or buy) something different...from you.

So there you have it. It's people who make innovation spread, not technology.  And with the exception of very simple offerings (like smartphones), it's not just people...it's the salespeople who change the world.

Like this post? If so, sign up for the free Sales Source newsletter.