7 Tips for Building and Maintaining Successful Relationships with KOLs

”(..) the primary purpose of the MSL role is to establish and maintain peer-peer relationships with leading physicians, referred to as Key Opinion Leaders (KOL’s), at major academic institutions and clinics.”
- Medical Science Liaison Society

Whether you read up on the role of Medical Science Liaisons (MSLs) on the MSL Society’s webpage or scan through job descriptions, one responsibility shows up on, or very near, the top of any list: building and maintaining professional relationships with key opinion leaders (KOLs) and other thought leaders (TLs).

While this might sound straightforward, it is actually a complex task that requires a combination of various skills such as deep scientific knowledge, great communication skills, a structured approach in form of an engagement plan and the willingness to listen, learn and integrate feedback.

Actively engaged KOLs – Every MLS’s Dream

Here are seven high-level tips for engaging KOLs or Thought Leaders (TLs) successfully and making sure the relationship is one of mutual respect and benefits both parties: the MSL as a scientific representative of their company, and the KOL in their role as a leading voice in their field of expertise.

  1. Set clear goals and expectations – the fastest way to ruin a relationship with a KOL is to not communicate clearly what your expectations are. Just because every job description focuses on building mutually beneficial relationships does not mean that everybody has the same understanding of what that actually means in real life, what activities are expected, what deadlines exist and how much time the KOL is expected to dedicate to this role, e.g. as participant in advisory meetings or as speaker at conferences.

  2. Develop an individual engagement plan for every KOL – this master plan lays out a comprehensive picture of what the KOL’s responsibilities are, who within the organization interacts with the KOL, and how the results of the KOL engagement are measured. The KOLs themselves should be part of the development process and the completed plan should be accessible to internal stakeholders to ensure transparency.

  3. Understand and consider the KOLs interests – the key term in a successful KOL – MSL relationship is “mutually beneficial” and monetary compensation for the services of a KOL is generally not enough to keep them truly engaged. KOLs are highly trained, successful professionals who are looking to gain insights and professional opportunities from their interaction with MSLs. What drives individual KOLs, however, can be very different and range from exciting opportunities in clinical research, e.g. investigator-initiated studies, publications, high-profile speaking engagements, and teaching opportunities to name a few. Making sure a KOL’s interests and needs are met creates a strong incentive for them to stay actively involved and engaged.

  4. Create opportunities for the KOL – this follows logically from understanding a KOL’s needs and interests: once you know and understand what drives a specific KOL, creating opportunities for them in their field of interest, e.g. conduct a study, present at a high-level conference, or (co-)author a high-profile paper, will incentivize and motivate them.

  5. Be a truly trustworthy source of information – as an MSL you have to live up to high standards. Your role is not to promote your company’s drugs but to be an independent and credible scientific peer. KOLs expect no less and are looking for honesty to a fault when it comes to scientific data. KOLs who perceive their MSLs to be biased or not properly presenting the good along with the bad have a poor opinion not just of the MSL but of the company and their products. In fact, a study showed that 36% of KOLs are not strong supporters of the company they are engaged with and unlikely to recommend its products to their colleagues. A deeper dig into the data showed that many of those non-supporters had MSLs for whom they had little regard. While it might feel wrong for an MSL to openly talk about problems, failures and issues, in the long term this honesty strengthens the relationship with the KOL and turns an MSL into a valued and respected resource for the KOL.

  6. Be well-prepared and respectful of a KOLs time – while this is neither a new nor a surprising point, it can easily fall by the wayside in the frantic pace of an MSL’s professional life. Well-planned meetings with clear agendas that start on time and provide new information, data and insight in a clear, concise way, show the KOL that you value their time and input. This makes them more likely to dedicate their own time and engage in a meaningful way.

  7. Embrace KOL feedback – you are meeting a KOL to inform, discuss - and learn. A KOLs feedback might not always be what you were hoping or looking for but getting that expert feedback – including criticism - is a large part of why you have engaged the KOL in the first place. Embracing your KOL’s feedback also shows them that their input is valued which goes a long way towards keeping them engaged and motivated to actively participate.

Building and maintaining a long-term professional relationship with a KOL is a long game. It takes time to build trust and mutual respect, but it can successfully inform and drive a company’s drug development and commercialization at all stages.