By Kevin Norr
Senior Instructional Designer and Project Lead

Chances are, you’ve tried at some point to change a habit, like biting your fingernails or spending too much time on social media. We’ve all been there. But have you ever tried to change the habits of your customers? The fact is, our customers have habits, too. And sometimes these behaviors can limit our success with them.

To understand what I mean, let’s consider the following story from Gabi, a pharmaceutical sales rep.

Today, I’m calling on Dr. Taylor, a GP. I’ve been trying to get him to consider a new pharmacotherapy. The problem is, whenever I attempt to advance the call, he says that he’s just not ready to prescribe our product. I’ve talked about appropriate patients, told engaging stories focused on the right patient types, and even discussed compelling clinical trial results. Still, Dr. Taylor seems “satisfied” with the results of the treatment he regularly prescribes. Honestly, I’m not sure what else to do.

The Habit Loop

Gabi’s story illustrates the challenge of overcoming a customer’s habit. In her example, Dr. Taylor habitually prescribes a treatment for patients despite compelling reasons to switch to a new one. Charles Duhigg explores habits such as this in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. He explains that there are 3 key elements of most habits: the cue, the routine, and the reward.

The “Habit Loop” process begins with the cue, or trigger, that prompts a routine behavioral response. That routine is then strengthened based on the positive outcome or benefit that comes from performing the behavior. Over time, a habit can become so strong that it often takes considerable effort to break it or replace it with a different habit.

Understanding Customer Habits

When cues are paired with powerful rewards, the routines of customers get strengthened—making it that much more difficult to influence their decisions. To overcome a customer’s habit, take the following steps:

  1. Analyze the existing habit. Begin by trying to better understand the 3 stages of your customer’s habit—the cue that prompts the routine; the routine (behavior) itself; and the reward that strengthens the habit. Ask effective probing questions that will help you uncover the motivations behind your customer’s behavior.
  2. Create and implement a plan to influence a change. Develop ways to limit the effectiveness of the cue and, if possible, lower the strength of the reward. Again, probing questions can give you insights that will help you accomplish these goals.
  3. Replace the current habit with a new one. Ideally, you can encourage your customer to adopt a different habit by suggesting different cues and highlighting the value of the reward they will gain by engaging in the new routine.

Breaking the Habit Loop

Earlier, we heard about the challenges Gabi faced when trying to influence Dr. Taylor. After learning about the Habit Loop, Gabi decided to analyze Dr. Taylor’s behavior. She began by identifying the 3 stages of his habit:

  • Cue – Dr. Taylor evaluates a patient and recognizes a need to treat the patient with appropriate medication.
  • Routine – Dr. Taylor prescribes the same medication that has worked for his patients for years.
  • Reward – The patient benefits from the usual treatment, and Dr. Taylor feels good about the patient’s progress.

Next, Gabi developed a 2-part plan for influencing Dr. Taylor’s habit.

  1. First, she’d try to target the cue and the reward of his current habit.
  2. Then, she would try to create a new habit that would involve prescribing her company’s product for appropriate patients.

Let’s hear from Gabi about how she implemented her plan with Dr. Taylor:

Part 1: Influencing the Current Habit

After creating some Habit Loop-focused questions during pre-call planning, I spent much of the conversation asking about Dr. Taylor’s current habit. I encouraged him to discuss how, when he confirms a certain condition (the cue), he’s highly likely to prescribe the same treatment that’s worked in the past. I then challenged Dr. Taylor by encouraging him to question this routine of prescribing something that he is merely “satisfied” with. I asked him to consider whether a better treatment option could exist for his patients.

Next, I focused on the reward for his current habit. I knew that after prescribing the treatment he was accustomed to, he felt good knowing most patients would see moderate benefits. To disrupt this perception, I asked Dr. Taylor about specific patients who did NOT achieve the desired outcome. I had him describe the challenges those patients faced. I also asked Dr. Taylor to think about what it would mean for his patients to obtain even better results from a newer treatment. Dr. Taylor admitted that achieving better results would be a strong reason to consider a treatment with which he did not have much experience.

Part 2: Creating a New Habit

I continued to meet with Dr. Taylor to discuss the benefits of my product, including high efficacy, a strong adverse event profile, and good co-pay coverage. I worked to alter the meaning of the cue that impacted Dr. Taylor’s previous habit. My goal was that whenever Dr. Taylor saw a patient who he believed could be helped by the previous treatment, he would think of all the additional benefits that the same patient might experience with the new medication. After a number of weeks, he agreed to switch several patients to my product to see how his patients responded. In addition, I wanted to avoid anything interfering with the potential rewards for Dr. Taylor, so I worked hard to ensure the patients could access the medication and that patient support options were available for patients who needed it. I was excited about helping Dr. Taylor change his habit and wanted to see him experience the benefits (rewards)—both for himself and for his patients.

Be Prepared to Make the Change

As Gabi’s story illustrates, successfully changing customer habits requires insight and expertise. Sales reps need to uncover the reasons behind their customers’ behaviors. They must also possess the selling skills that motivate change. At Encompass, we partner with clients to create training that prepares reps to do both as they work to influence their customers’ habits. Topics often include pre-call planning strategy, the development of effective probing questions, and communication techniques that best advance the call. We—and our clients—have seen how, with practice, reps can consistently improve their ability to positively impact customer habits. Contact us to learn more!


Kevin Norr is an accomplished education and training professional who brings more than 20 years of experience in designing electronic and in-person courses to Encompass. His experience spans a host of industries, including pharmaceutical sales, aerospace, transportation and shipping, leadership training, financial services, telecommunications, nonprofit organizations, and manufacturing. Kevin earned a PhD in industrial/organizational psychology from Auburn University. He has served as a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington for over 10 years, creating and teaching online courses in industrial psychology to advanced undergraduate students.