Establishing a positive and productive professional relationship with an opinion leader (sometimes referred to as a key opinion leader, or KOL) is the foundation of bringing value to the opinion leader’s treatment of his or her patients. Medical science liaisons (MSLs) are often tasked with communicating complex data and information to opinion leaders or other healthcare professionals. This is significantly easier and more effective if you have established a positive professional relationship.
Central to establishing a positive professional relationship is trust. Opinion leaders need to feel like they can trust the MSL. In his book Principle-Centered Leadership, Stephen R. Covey says that trust is found at the intersection of the following two qualities:
- Competence: In order to trust the MSL, the opinion leader needs to believe that the MSL is competent in his or her job. The opinion leader needs to feel that the MSL knows the disease state, therapies, and associated information well enough to engage in a meaningful conversation.
- Character: The opinion leader needs to believe the MSL has integrity and what he or she communicates is true, balanced, and appropriate. The opinion leader also needs to believe the MSL has maturity and will maintain his or her demeanor, even in challenging situations, and look at both sides of an issue during a conversation. Finally, and perhaps most important, the opinion leader needs to believe the MSL genuinely cares about the patient, not just the organization the MSL represents.
Once the MSL and opinion leader establish trust, the MSL can then begin to cultivate a positive professional relationship with the opinion leader. Trust can take time to establish, so the MSL may need to nurture it once he or she has established it.
Qualities of a Good Professional Opinion Leader Relationship
Think about any healthy relationships you know. There are probably a few characteristics you could identify that are common in those relationships:
1. People in healthy relationships are honest and candid with each other.
The bedrock of a professional relationship is a high degree of honesty and candor. When building your relationship with an opinion leader, always demonstrate the highest degree of integrity. If an opinion leader ever senses you aren’t honest, he or she will lose trust in you and may never trust you again.
If the opinion leader asks your opinion about something, be candid in your perspective. Think about the person you trust the most. If you buy a piece of clothing that doesn’t look good and you ask the person you trust how it looks on you, that person is going to be candid. The person may serve it up diplomatically, but he or she is going to tell you the truth about whether it looks good on you. The same is true of being candid with an opinion leader. Be diplomatic, but also be candid.
2. People in healthy relationships disagree from time to time.
Normal relationships include disagreements. It’s part of how we communicate and grow. If you never have a disagreement with an opinion leader, then you probably have a one-sided superficial relationship. This type of relationship will never evolve and grow.
How you handle a disagreement is key to the outcome. Relationship experts say that when two people have a disagreement, if they work through it maturely, they often have a deeper relationship. The way to handle a disagreement is to first be empathic, which means you respect the opinion leader’s perspective and want to hear more about it. As the opinion leader shares his or her perspective, try to find common ground, which is where you can build understanding. It’s okay to disagree in the end, and you should stand your ground when you are convinced you are right, but respect the opinion leader’s perspective, too.
3. People in healthy relationships care about each other’s success.
High-functioning professional relationships are truly win-win, which means that each party genuinely cares about the other’s success. By demonstrating that you care about what’s important to the opinion leader, you build a deeper relationship. Likewise, the opinion leader also should care about what’s important to you. While you can’t make the opinion leader do that, you can approach the relationship with that expectation and work toward it. The best way to do that is to be clear about your business goals and what you hope to accomplish in the relationship with the opinion leader.
4. People in healthy relationships engage in routine deep conversations.
People who have great relationships communicate—a lot! You can’t build a good professional relationship without routine conversation, but your conversations must be meaningful and focus on helping the opinion leader with the treatment of his or her patients. Superficial conversations, while not bad, tend not to develop deep relationships.
Establishing and developing a positive professional relationship with an opinion leader starts by establishing trust, which comes from you being competent and demonstrating character. Then as you grow and develop the relationship with the opinion leader, be candid about your perspective and respectful of his or hers. Another key to developing that relationship is to develop mutual respect and care about each other’s goals through routine deep conversations that focus on how you can help the opinion leader with the treatment of his or her patients. A positive professional relationship is a wonderful way to work with an opinion leader and results in extraordinary outcomes for both of you.