This morning I attended a breakfast for visitors to the Business Networking International club in the local area. Some years ago, I came across this global networking club through Rotary. At the time I was researching on industry and business in my local area and created a program to connect more business with social responsibility through community service. You can read more about it in the blog post: Vocational Service Leadership Award At the time, I remember thinking that one day, somehow, somewhere, I would reconnect with BNI – and this morning, I did.
BNI is a global business networking club. The club has members from different businesses but there’s only one of each type of business in each club. For example, if you were a chiropractor and the club you wanted to join already had a chiropractor, effectively you’d need to look for another club to join. (They call it “Closed Business” – the term didn’t sit well with me especially when I espouse openness). Although multiple professions is not a major issue especially as there are different specialties within the one job, the idea is that club (they call them “chapter”) members refer work to each others business.
To say that I wasn’t nervous is a bit of an understatement. I have been in corporate life for over 24 years now and this was my first exposure to a room full of small to medium size business operators. Their world was new to me. Dare I say it, I felt a bit like an imposter. There were new faces, new language, new business needs, new issues to what corporates face but I was there to learn and to research how I can become more locally involved in my community and if they were a potential new target market for my services in social and collaborative learning.
I had to test my theory out.
Entering the room, I was welcomed by a member and asked to place a wad of my business cards on a tray which were passed around during the meeting.
Around the room were various advertising and promotional material of the business and networking was in progress. People were chatting and introducing each other. I was paired up with a lady who provided HR services who was also a new member and we chatted politely about how we found out about BNI. The vibe was upbeat and positive. The meeting was called to order and new visitors were welcomed. It was fairly structured (yes, there was even a timekeeper who rang a bell). The meeting started promptly at 7 am and finished at 8:30 am.
Initially, all the chapter members stood up in turn and gave a 45 second presentation on their business. This was their “elevator pitch” and we were encouraged to make notes on a piece of paper should their business be of interest to us and then connect with them. Afterwards, the new visitors were asked to stand up and give a short presentation on themselves and their business and to be honest, I stuffed it up. It was because I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself trying to think of a way to explain what I do to this particular audience.
How do I explain it in order that it makes sense to that chiropractor, plumber and mortgage broker?
Can they be a potential new market for me?
Well as I was trying to formulate a response in my head, it was my turn to speak. I stood up and introduced myself and said, “I make work human by showing people how to use social tools to build networks and communities so that your business can connect and converse with your customers” (or that could have been what I said in my head) but I think I missed the mark.
Speaking to people at my table, they mistook me for a social media marketer as I was asked questions on how to get their business ranking higher on Google and other methods for search engine optimisation. As for any learning options, it was all about classroom workshops or webinars that can be recorded and sold (content marketing).
The focus was on promoting their own business; their product; their services not on personal or professional learning. That is, not on what business owners or their staff can do personally to build new connections and engage with their customers conversations online ie. the social networking behaviours.
(I think I would have had more understanding if I simply stood up and said, “I run LinkedIn workshops” or “I run Twitter workshops”. Maybe my story would have been completely different if I did that).
That’s not to say their focus a bad thing, after all it is their business and livelihood! If anything, I learned that I need to have a clear value proposition for specific target market. I also need to explain that it’s not about LinkedIn, or Facebook or Twitter – it’s about taking what they do well in person (case in point: these face-to-face networking meetings) and doing the same behaviours online to build new networks, connections, be exposed to new ideas, industries and people that would help them in their business. It’s not about click rates; or buying Facebook likes and Twitter followers….
So the questions floating around in my mind were…
How can I help a mortgage broker grow her personal network so that she can connect with others in her field?
How can I help that tax accountant share his expertise and converse with others in related fields?
After the meeting ended, my questions were answered. I sat next to a lady who was the only Lamaze instructor in Australia and she told me that this form of child birth option is not common in Australia. Her problem was that she wanted to spread the word about this and build a reputation so that she could start delivering classes in Australia. She had lots of information and experience to share but she had no idea how to go about it. Here was an opportunity where personal learning networks, social tools and blogging would have solved her issue. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to speak to her further as she was whisked away for potential new business.
More Information about BNI
Some other details about how these clubs work is that they track their finance in closed business sales. For this particular club, they have a goal to achieve $5 million per year. One member mentioned that in order to make BNI work for you, you will need to:
- Attend the weekly meeting to build relationships with the club members & to learn more about their business
- Attend a one-on-one meeting outside of each event and physically go and sit with a fellow club member in their business to learn more about it
- Prepare a 45 second elevator pitch that you will need to share at meetings (you also get public speaking opportunities)
- Prepare a 6 minute presentation about your business (this is presented twice a year at bigger events)
- Have a goal for BNI referrals and track your performance against them.
During the meeting, there are little slips of paper that get passed around where you write down your referrals but also if you have been referred. Although they didn’t explain this in detail, I assume there is some performance measure to meet the financial target. Someone mentioned that you’re expected to bring in new people to clubs as well although I don’t have any further details about this.
Ultimately I came away from the breakfast meeting with 19 business cards in hand, no interest in what I had to offer and a whole heap of learning for me to revisit what my accountant had said to me some time ago as he flung his arms in the air and exclaimed, “Helen, what are you actually selling? Dumb it down, dumb it down! Show people they have a problem they didn’t know they had”…
Will I join BNI?
Unsure. I still have some niggling questions about the cost of joining versus value to me (It will be approx $890 not including the weekly meal cost and a new member fee of $407).
There’s also a part of me that is still mulling over the concept of referrals in a “online socially networked world” as what I saw today was it working at a local level for small business operators but what about the medium/light industry in our area? Do they work on referrals or supplier/vendor panels and tenders? Is it simply just best if I continue doing what I’m doing through my blog or through attending various Meetups like the one I created for Learning and Development people called Third Place?
How does the “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” work in an open, authentic and trustful manner unless you offer exceptional customer service and quality in ALL your business contacts regardless of who they are and where they come from.
Also, I don’t want to be placed under pressure to be tracked against some personal or club performance measure. However, I love the idea of getting to know fellow business operators and spend time in their business. I’d like to go to a few more different clubs to see what they’re about because the question is, “do I want to just run Twitter or LinkedIn workshops (services centred around tools) or services centred around changing behaviours?
The latter is much more enticing for me.
If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend you contact your local BNI chapter and go along to a meeting and see if this is for you.