Trilogy Tidings
April 2015
in this issue
     There's a logical focus on key opinion leaders (KOLs) these days. This focus is especially relevant in the medical-products arena, where physician attitudes still matter quite a bit in purchasing decisions. Whether you call them KOLs or lead users (LUs), you need to have occasional conversations with those folks. We do a lot of that stuff in our practice, and I realized that my experiences are worth sharing with you.  I hope you find them useful.  
Lead User
     If you think your lead users can be an important resource -- beyond just buying your products and services -- read on.


Lead Users: What are they good for? 

     As far as I can tell, the notion of a lead user (LU) was first explored by Eric von Hippel at MIT in 1986.  (See his web page.)  It's a great notion and, like most great notions, as soon as you hear of it you say "well sure, that's obvious".  Professor Von Hippel can surely explain the idea much better than I can, but a lead user is essentially a forward-thinking early adopter who understands where a field is going way before anyone else does.  A lead user is a seer, an accurate prognosticator, a problem detector, sometimes a solution provider.  A lead user can be one of your best new-product resources.

Here are a few examples of what LUs are good for:
  • Identifying unmet needs and (maybe) potential solutions
  • Evaluating your new-product concept
  • Assessing the landscape of a market from a user's perspective
  • Predicting, and sometimes initiating, paradigm shifts
  • Helping you understand competitors and competitive forces; possibly sharing some competitive intelligence 
  • Convincing you and your organization that you're on the wrong track (hopefully before disaster strikes)
  • Confirming that you're on the right track and headed for success
  • Providing access to informed, out-of-the-box thinking
  • Essentially "defining" your next successful new product or service
  • Serving as an implementation or commercialization advisor

There are many more examples, but you get the idea.

     So, you need to have dialogs with these people!  How do you do that?  Why should they favor you with their opinions?  How can you maximize the exploitation of their insights?  Read on.
     Most of my personal experience along these lines is with things medical, so I'll be referring primarily to dialogs with clinicians -- especially physicians, but also nurses, ancillary therapists, laboratorians, and medical researchers.  Some of my ideas are surely applicable to other LUs, but you'll have to read between the lines.


Have Successful Dialogs with Your Lead Users 
     I will address some of the important issues in my own experience -- much of it gleaned from failure, like most valued experience -- that must have your attention if you're to make these LU dialogs worthwhile.
     Know your stuff.  First things first.  You absolutely must be well informed on the topics of interest, otherwise your future dialogs are doomed to failure.  Simply put, you must be able to hold your own with experts (by definition) in the field.  Do the necessary research: Understand clinical needs, current standards of practice, emerging methods, leading suppliers, regulatory and reimbursement climates, emerging technologies and new players -- just to name a few prerequisites.  There are lots of ways to do this, and you probably know them all so I won't bore you.
     Identify the right people.  This is obvious, critical and quite easy.  LUs, at least in the medical domain, usually publish and they are often quoted by journalists.  Furthermore, one will often lead you to others.  A bit of careful desk research will identify the individuals who are likely to be LUs, or it will at least stimulate some networking that achieves that end.
     Provide incentives.  Why would these clinicians want to waste their valuable, billable time talking to you if they don't know you?  (Don't limit yourself to people you know; that's not going to get it done.)  You need to reach out to the target community of expert users in the space of interest.  Those clinicians will care about two things: (1) a topic which is in the sphere of their vital interest and expertise and (2) compensation for their shared insights and time -- not because they need the money (they don't) but because they need to know that you are serious and respectful of their contribution to the field of interest.  You will find some expert physicians who will talk to you gratis, but you won't find enough of them quickly enough.
     Craft a compelling invitation.  Here's the secret stuff.  Lay it out.  Dive into the detail to let each prospect know that you (1) know the territory, (2) respect their contribution, and (3) are aware of the pivotal issues affecting the future.  Do it with brevity, professionalism, and lack of pretense.  Offer a precisely defined incentive up front.  Don't be coy.  And, make it clear that you are willing to share not just cash but potentially useful information gleaned from other respondents.  I like to use email for these invitations because most LUs use email, it's relatively non-intrusive and time-insensitive, you can make your case concisely and precisely, and you need not concern yourself with gatekeepers.
     Beware personal biases and ulterior motives.  We all have biases and personal objectives, certainly including LUs.  Just recognize that these biases and motives exist, try to divine what they are in the course of each interaction, and plan to compensate for them.  (One common motive among research-oriented physicians is their interest in conducting clinical trials.)  For LUs the most important influences are professional, at least within the context of the dialogs we're talking about here.  These experts want to be influential and have their strongly held views widely recognized and appreciated by their peers because these views are central to who they are and what they do.  After interviewing five or ten of these folks, you should be able to account for these leanings and home in on "truth".  Yes, mine is surely a vague reference, but this ability to sort wheat from chaff is much more art than science; it just seems to come with experience.
     Can the sales pitch.  You're not trying to simply make a sale with this conversation (you're not, right?).  You are attempting to exchange valuable information, so do nothing that will raise the suspicion of your respondent that you're just wasting her/his time.  For this reason it's usually best to not take on this task yourself if you represent a supplier of products in the domain of interest.  Of course, you could just misrepresent your affiliation but (1) that's not really ethical and (2) this fib could well catch up with you later.  So, even if your long-term objective is to stimulate sales of, say, a new product, sublimate this objective for the purpose at hand.

     Engage in an effective conversation.  Remember, you're not interviewing a potentate; you want to have a substantive conversation with a colleague on a topic of mutual interest.  Ask brief, somewhat vague, open-ended questions to elicit rich responses.  Ask repeatedly for elaboration.  Challenge with authority based upon what you already know (see "know your stuff" above) and what others have told you.  Offer alternative views to what you hear, and listen for equivocation or firm resolve.  Above all, don't constrain the dialog with a questionnaire-like script.  While you set the macro-agenda, let the respondent set a few of his/her own micro-agendas.  This approach will allow the real gems of ideas to emerge.  By the way, you can have these conversations in several ways, but my favorite means is the telephone; it's free from most distractions, allows for a rich interplay, and permits note-taking without awkward interruptions.  As for physicians, they are much easier to schedule for a phone call than a personal visit.                

But Lead Users Are Not Enough
     LUs are great assets for what they can best do for you.  However, you cannot build a business selling products or services exclusively to LUs.  You must eventually reach out to the broader community of prospective users, so it's a very good idea to talk with some (or many) of them, too.  You can take a phased approach, for example using LU dialogs to help you define your next product and later checking its likely receptivity by routine users.  But be aware that routine users (and especially healthcare providers) may not be ready for a radical departure right away; they're likely to need peer-generated evidence of value and time to pass before they are ready to buy.  You just have to deal with this uncertainty, account for the the inevitable delay in latent demand, and line up the best set of early adopters you can to promote your new concept to their peers.


What does Trilogy do? 
     Trilogy Associates facilitates business growth and renewal through commercialization of new products, providing the following services:
  • Opportunity assessment
  • Business planning and enterprise growth strategies
  • New-product conceptualization, commercialization and marketing
  • Market research and competitive assessment
  • Business development and partnering
  • Market and technological due diligence
  • Assessment of the therapeutic and diagnostic potential of novel technologies
  • Design of efficient and effective development strategies for early-stage biomedical products
  • Business and technical writing/publishing

     Inquiries to establish whether and how we might support your business initiatives are always welcome.  Contact us.



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Joseph J. Kalinowski, Principal