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This is a review of BNI (Business Networking International), a business networking and referral organization. BNI is recognized as the greatest business referral organization. This is my personal experience at a local chapter meeting. This review is targeted toward local business owners who are looking to grow their business by referrals.
My experience with professional networking
When I started my business I went to 3 or 4 different networking events every week! Some of them were free events. I paid for some. I was also invited to join several professional networking groups. BNI Connect (Business Networking International) was one of them.
What is BNI Connect?
For those of you wondering just what is BNI, I’ll explain it.
BNI is a professional networking group. Its primary purpose is to give its members more business. Typically, your local BNI group will only allow one business from each industry to join. For example, at every meeting there will only be one real estate agent and one accountant. Ideally, the members build relationships that organically evolve into sending and receiving business referrals from one another.
I made some mistakes at business professional meetings
I have to admit that the promise of getting regular referrals from these groups was very attractive. But, I made mistakes. In fact, those mistakes led me to swear off paid networking groups altogether. I still tell almost everyone not to join them. Of course, like all rules, there are exceptions.
So, don’t join a networking group…until you commit to the two items outlined below.
#1 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 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. Joe said I should call you.”
Notice that it’s someone you don’t know who calls you up and mentions a friend or a colleague. The referral usually uses a phrase like “said I should contact you”.
A cold 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 group if all you’re going to give or get are business cards. This is a complete waste of your time and money. And it kills trees.
#2 You’re prepared to give and receive referrals.
At my first BNI Connect® meeting, I noticed something interesting as people were mingling. A lot of the members weren’t prepared to give or even receive referrals. They were just passing around business cards.
Be prepared to give and receive referrals by having a referral system in place. You need to have the following:
- A clear and focused profile of your ideal customer aka avatar. This description should be specific and focused enough so that I would recognize them in my daily life. Think: people who drive pick-up trucks, people who have recently purchased a home, or recently divorced women. Be as 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 aka elevator pitch or tagline (for example – when you need a pizza in 30 minutes)
- A profile of your ideal customer, complete with trigger words that should make your referrer think of you (for example – I’m getting a divorce.)
- What you want the person to say to the prospective client (for example- I know someone who can help you with that, can I connect you?)
- Available “thank you” options. 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 original to share that will pique the curiosity of the group.
- Have meaningful referral meetings. Ultimately you want to partner up with people who are complementary to your business. These are trusted advisors or influencers for your ideal customer. You don’t need hundreds of these people, about five or six work great. 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 your business partnerships well.
5 Situations Where BNI Isn’t 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 don’t just take my word for it!If you’ve been invited, go! Visit a few chapters in your area. Each chapter has its own personality and even if you are in the one of these situations, you may still decide that BNI works for your business.
1. 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 spending from $750 to $1200 a year. You should not join a BNI chapter if you are a struggling entrepreneur. Even if you’re doing well financially, skip BNI if you believe that you won’t get a return on your investment.
2. 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.Not to mention the travel time to and from these meetings.
There will also be the temptation (and pressure) to get involved in your chapter’s leadership. If you’re a very busy person, the ten hours on average that you spend with your BNI group may not be worth it. It will be several months of this before you’ll see a return.
3. You run an internet-based business.
The BNI works well for those with traditional small businesses; plumbers, accountants, pest exterminators, or other local service providers. It also works well for those who provide their services within a specific geographical area.
However, it’s 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’re a digital marketer, copywriter, or graphic designer, you’ll have better results generating leads online.
4. 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 a laser hair removal practice, you will have a difficult time getting referrals.
BNI works best for people who have more traditional businesses like insurance. In other words, it’s good for services that most people use.
5. You’re not prepared to spend a considerable amount of time and effort to engage with the BNI group.
Those who get the most out of their BNI Group 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.
You local BNI group is not a silver bullet.
BNI Group Connect offers incredible value to so many small business owners. They would not have survived so many years and economies if they didn’t. Like all networking groups, your experience with BNI may vary. And like anything else in business, you get out what you put in. A BNI group only provides the network and the community. You have to bring your own marketing, referral system, and dedication.