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Finding mutual respect

Opinion leaders in Europe want more openness from the pharma firms they work with

The benefits of seeking out clinical experts who will endorse your brand and its supporting messages have long been recognised, and peer endorsement has become a fundamental element of the pharma marketing mix.

In a world where finding, keeping and building lasting relationships with opinion leaders is becoming harder, and rivalry from predatory competitors is increasing, it is not enough to find an opinion leader for a short-term romance. This will do nothing for your brand and reputation in the long term. What is easily forgotten is how pharma firms should build on and develop these relationships over time.

Peer endorsement is one of three critical factors that will change the behaviour of health professionals. Yet, despite the best efforts of pharmaceutical medics and marketers to develop strong, enduring relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs), this area requires further attention.

In order to better understand the key drivers that result in positive and lasting relationships between pharma firms and clinicians, Ogilvy4D (re-branded from 4D Communications) the medical education arm of Ogilvy Healthworld, ran an online survey of key clinical experts in Europe.

This resulted in some extremely interesting findings. Being aware of the behaviours that your opinion leaders like to see and what really irritates them could help keep your relationship and, importantly, your brand, alive. As with any meaningful long-term relationship, you have to make a big investment, but it's often the small things that matter the most.

Talk to your clinical expert
Some 92 per cent of opinion leaders surveyed in Europe feel that they have a `good' or `very good' relationship with the pharma industry.

This is good news, but what do they think we, as an industry, are doing right, and which factors contribute to making the best working relationships?

Good communication and transparency regarding commercial objectives are considered to be critical in forging a healthy partnership. Opinion leaders like their communication to be honest, fair and open, as well as to have a shared understanding of each other's agendas and openness about what the agendas are.

They also feel that companies that foster good relationships take steps to ensure that they are mutually beneficial and not one-sided. They like to be actively listened to, with companies displaying respect for my agenda and a willingness to accept criticism and disagreement.

A notable point is that European opinion leaders, who have the power to make or break a brand, like to experience `human relationships', which, thanks to their very nature, promote good contact and an open, frank dialogue.

A simple way to see that communication in a relationship is pitched appropriately is to agree at the start of a project how you plan to communicate with each other. How do your opinion leaders like to be communicated with - face-to-face meetings, telephone, fax, email? How do they like to communicate? How often do they want to hear from you, and vice versa?

Transparency over commercial aims is the only way for mutual trust to be achieved. Frank discussions regarding corporate goals and opinion leaders' interests should be conducted regularly, as agendas can change over time.

Check your interaction
While there were a number of good aspects cited with respect to relationships with pharma, opinion leaders also listed a number of behaviours exhibited by key firms that damaged their relationships.

Unsurprisingly, given their place on the model behaviour list, communication and transparency were also top scorers here. Pushing an agenda in a hidden way was a common theme - almost three-quarters (70 per cent) of the respondents claimed that lack of transparency about pharma company objectives was irritating.

A breakdown in communication was also cited regularly as a clumsy way to damage a relationship and was quite often due to a change in contacts at a company - reasons cited were poor communication and inefficient organisation, and people endlessly leaving and being replaced, as well as I have not seen anyone from company X since product Y's licence ended.

This could be resolved simply by creating a tailored personal development plan for opinion leaders, identifying clearly the company's individual responsible for building that relationship. This way, if a member of staff changes jobs or leaves a company, as part of their handover, they can update their successor on the stage reached in the personal development plan for any one opinion leader.

Many survey respondents also criticised pharma companies for failing to use their advice: Unwilling to listen and learn from the discussion at meetings... I feel that I have wasted my time and they have wasted their money... I don't mind being disagreed with, but object to being ignored!

As many as 60 per cent of opinion leaders surveyed believed that pharma could use their guidance more fully. We cannot afford to ignore this majority view.

Perhaps it would be enough to let your KOLs know, after an advisory board, what the company plans to do with their advice and explain the reasons for any action, or inaction. A fear of over-committing can often be an obstacle to doing this, but a short follow-up note could suffice.

Most popular activities
The nature of the advice/consultancy and the activities undertaken with the opinion leaders surveyed tended to range from guidance on a product's use in clinical practice, clinical trials, research and development through to product positioning/marketing/branding and clinical data analysis/interpretation.

The types of activities respondents had been involved in with a pharma company included speaking at meetings, authoring publications, educational materials and participation in the development of Continuing Medical Education (CME) programmes.

Could the activities described above be perceived as somewhat one-sided? Is it possible that the pharmaceutical industry is the dominant partner here? What do opinion leaders stand to gain from the relationship, other than being reimbursed for their time to undertake these activities?

The research results certainly suggest that we could improve our relationships, and ultimately, enhance our brand image by listening and acting on advice from opinion leaders more frequently, thereby restoring the balance a little and pleasing both parties equally.

Common goals
Overall, the survey results indicate that 94 per cent of respondents were either `very' or `quite' likely to work with pharma companies in the future. However, we must not be complacent as the research also reveals that it is time to re-think the way we interact with these leaders in their field if we are going to truly benefit from their expertise and knowledge.

Ask yourself: what do I want in a partner? What might they be looking for in me? Good relationships are not about seeing eye-to-eye, rather about all eyes looking in the same direction. As with personal relationships, it is important that pharma executives take some time before they start looking for their ideal opinion leader partners, to define which attributes they are looking for.

When they meet someone for the first time, they need to exercise their listening and questioning skills, not only to find common ground but also to unearth what motivates and drives that particular prospective partner. What are their career goals? What are their personal priorities? How can the company help the opinion leader to fulfil their objectives, as well as feed their own needs?

The mutually beneficial goals in the partnership need to be defined right from the start.

Stay in touch
A frank, open and ongoing dialogue is critical if any relationship is going to endure. Does this sound like a familiar pattern in your relationships with opinion leaders: you are happy together, making frequent contact and cannot stop talking about your shared view of how treatment X can really make a difference to clinical practice and patient outcomes.

After a while, you settle into a routine and the excitement wears off. Your working days are busy and you stop talking regularly. You meet other opinion leaders whose company you enjoy and these new colleagues are taking up your time. You forget to find out what's different in each other's lives, neglecting to update each other on changes in the clinical landscape and updated company objectives.

This is the time for a reality check to ensure that your relationship does not end up being permanently damaged. Do you still have common goals? Have you spent any quality time with each other recently?

Keep talking until you come up with a way to resolve any differences and unearth your shared objectives once again. You will then be able to move into a new, exciting era where common goals are attained.

Our survey has thrown up advice that can benefit all pharma companies:

  • Find out what drives individual opinion leaders

  • Develop a tailored plan for each opinion leader

  • Ask how you can get the most from their guidance

  • Play to your opinion leaders' strengths

  • Really listen to their opinion

  • Act on their opinion, or explain why you have decided not to do so

  • Update them on how their advice was used/what the outcome was

  • Talk regularly to check that you are continuing to make the most of their guidance

  • Talk regularly to build your relationship and not just when a project comes up

  • Be honest and open in your discussions.

The Author
Juliet Morley is senior director at Ogilvy4D.

2nd September 2008


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