For the first year of my new business I went to about three of four different networking events every week! Some of them were free events, some of them were paid. I was also invited to join several professional networking groups such as BNI Connect® (Business Networking International).

I have to admit that the promise of getting regular referrals from members of these groups was very attractive. Except for a couple things I didn’t realize that had me swear off professional paid networking groups — UNLESS and UNTIL you…

Know the difference between a lead and a referral

This is a big one! One of the first things I noticed is that the people at my local BNI Connect® event were simply sharing cold leads.

Let’s get something straight — giving someone another person’s business card is NOT a referral. It’s a cold lead. You know a referral when you get one. It usually sounds something like this: “Hi Ivana, I was talking to Joe Smith about my marketing and he said I should talk to you.” Notice that it’s someone you don’t know who calls you up and mentions a friend or a colleague with the phrase “said I should talk to you” wedged between your friend’s name and exactly what you specialize in.

A lead looks like a business card with someone’s name on it. YOU have to call them. YOU have to mention the person’s name. THEY sound confused. YOU have to build the connection and the relationship. CLEARLY – this is not a referral.

Don’t join a BNI Connect® group if all you’re going to give or get are business card leads. This is a complete waste of your time and money (and it kills trees).

Be prepared to give and receive referrals

At my first BNI Connect® meeting, I noticed something interesting as people were mingling, I noticed that a lot of them weren’t prepared to give or receive referrals. As I said before, they were just passing around business cards.

Be prepared to give and receive referrals by having a referral system in place. This includes having the following:

  • A clear and focused profile of your ideal customer. This description should be specific and focused enough so that I would recognize them in my daily life. People who drive pick-up trucks, people who have recently purchased a home, women who have recently gotten a divorce, new dads. Be as visually descriptive and specific as possible.
  • A referral guideline. A referral guideline is a single sheet that describes exactly how you want people to refer you. Think of it as a sales sheet or cheat sheet for your referrers. After all, they are your salespeople and you aren’t paying them. Shouldn’t you make it easy for them to refer you? This is the way to do it. A great referral guideline includes: Your business name, a single simple sentence for how you want your referrer to remember you (can be a tag line – when you need a pizza in 30 minutes), a profile of your ideal customer, trigger words that should make your referrer think of you (I’m getting a divorce – for example), what you want the person to say to the prospective client (usually something like, I know someone who can help you with that, can I introduce you?), and finally, have some “thank you” options available. Are you going to pay a referral fee or give a gift? What’s going to work for that person?
  • Specific offers. Don’t just pitch your company, pitch specific offers that will meet specific needs of your ideal customer. Always have something cool and different to share that will tickle the curiosity of the group.
  • Have meaningful referral meetings. ?Ultimately you want to partner up with people who are complementary to your business and who are trusted advisors or influencers to your ideal customer. You don’t need hundreds of these people, about five of each will do just fine. Then have meetings with them where you update each other on what’s new, maybe you collaborate on offers, team up with customers and clients. Work together.

Once you have these things in place, you are completely ready to join a BNI Connect ® group. You will have a system in place, know your ideal customer and be able to manage and move these relationships forward.

5 Situations Where BNI® May Not Be a Good Fit

BNI® isn’t for everyone. After a few visits and experiences, I decided that it was not a good fit for me. But let me say — don’t just take my word for it. If you’ve been invited, definitely go and visit a few chapters in your area. Each chapter has its own personality and even if you are in the following situations, you may still decide that it’s a good fit for you.

1. Do not join if you have a low expense budget.

Joining BNI® can be expensive. Not only is there a high membership fee but there are also a lot of hidden costs. The membership fee is $500 a year. Hidden costs include paying for food if your chapter has its meeting at a restaurant or paying for room rental if your chapter has its meeting at a rented location. While it is possible to trim expenses by watching what you eat (and staying hungry while everyone else orders lavishly), there may be a flat admission fee whether or not you order something. Incidental costs can average from $10 to $20 a week. Altogether, you may end up paying from $750 to $1200 a year. You should not join a BNI™chapter if you are a struggling entrepreneur or if you believe that you will not be able to get a return on your investment.

2. Do not join if you have a tight schedule.

Ostensibly, you will only have to meet for about two hours a week–but here, too, there are hidden factors to consider. Joining the Member Success Program and Leadership Training will cut into your time. Another thing to consider is that the One-to-One meets require you to meet other BNI®™ members outside the regular meeting times. Although these can be for as little as an hour, they usually end up lasting longer. There will also be the temptation (and pressure) to get involved in your chapter?s leadership. If you are a very busy person, the ten hours on average that you spend at the BNI™ may not be worth it since it will be several months before you will see a return.

3. Do not join if run an internet-based business.

The BNI® works well for those with traditional small businesses; plumbers, accountants, pest exterminators, or other small service providers. It also works well for those who provide their services within a specific geographical area. It, however, is not suitable for more cutting-edge, technologically savvy businesses, particularly those that leverage the enormous reach of the internet for leads. For instance, if you are an internet marketer, copywriter, or graphics designer, your time will be better spent generating your leads online.

4. Do not join if you have an unusual niche.

Although the BNI® does work for local businesses, it does not work for businesses that are slightly outside the mainstream. For instance, if you have a nail salon or an electrolysis provider (permanently remove unwanted hair), you will have a difficult time getting referrals. The BNI® works for people who have more traditional businesses?like real estate, mortgage, insurance, or tax preparation. In other words, it is good for services that most people use.

5. Do not join if are not prepared to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to engage with the group.

Those who get the most out of their BNI® membership are those who put in the time and effort to help other members through referrals. This activity leads to getting referrals through reciprocation. The BNI® also benefits those who are able to make their weekly meeting a priority, who make sure they attend every week, who take the time to meet with other members outside the weekly meeting, and who frequently invite guests. What’s more, these are activities cannot be glossed over because they are closely monitored by the Vice President. The VP keeps track of each time you were absent, late, or sent someone in your place. He or she also keeps tabs on every referral you’ve made or failed to make and each time you brought in a visitor or didn’t.

BNI Connect® is not a silver bullet

I want to be clear that BNI Connect® offers incredible value to so many small business owners. They would not have survived so many years and economies if they didn’t. What I want to be sure to communicate is that your BNI® experience will only be as good and profitable as you are prepared for. BNI® can only provide the network and the community — you have to provide the marketing message and offers that are easy to refer.