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To BNI or Not To BNI

That Is the Networking Question

You might be wondering, what the heck is BNI? BNI stands for Business Networking International. It is the world’s leading business referral organization with over 259,000 members in 9,150 chapters worldwide. In Calgary, there are 12 chapters, meeting around the city with hundreds of local members. If you live in Southern Alberta there are 4 chapters in Lethbridge and 2 in Red Deer. If you live outside of Calgary and Southern Alberta, there are local chapters in many cities and towns worldwide. Visit the Canadian site or the global website for chapter locations and meeting times in your area.

BNI is the brainchild of Dr. Ivan Misner, who started the organization over 30 years ago. The idea is simple enough; you meet each week with your chapter members, and any interested visitors, to learn about each other and your respective businesses. The premise is, once you get to know, like and trust the other business owners, the more likely you’ll refer business to each other.

The Back Story

I’ve known about BNI for years, but I joined a chapter about 2 years ago after repeated recommendations from a friend. I’ve spent the last two years meeting 45-50 business owners for breakfast every Thursday morning. I’ve gotten to know people better between meetings and, when available I’ve attended periodic social and educational functions as well. I have never networked so much in my life, and I could have networked far more if I had the time.

As an introvert, I’ve always avoided regular networking; preferring internet marketing for online sales lead generation. Internet marketing is so time and cost-efficient, I could never get my head around committing to regular in-person networking meetings. Plus, it was a great excuse to reinforce my introverted tendencies.

After my two years in a BNI chapter, I’ve become clear what I like and dislike about it. Hopefully, I can help you decide if BNI is a fit for you.

Who’s In The Room?

The members tend to be small business owners, independent contractors or sales representatives.

The chapters are all different but they tend to be organized into 4 groups called power teams. There is the Business Services Team who all focus on B2B clients. The Health Services Team is focused on different aspects of health care. The Home Services Team are all focused on some aspect of real estate or home ownership. The Personal Services Team all focus on B2C offerings such as a florist, personal financial services, photography or an automotive shop. The teams work together to develop mutually beneficial relationships to take advantage of natural synergies within different buyer journeys.

Is BNI Worth It?

Like anything, you get out of it what you put into it, and some people and businesses are better suited for BNI than others. The more accessible and simple your business is, the more likely you are to do well with BNI. Speciality companies may need to work harder to connect to niche networks through BNI, but it is possible to make it work.

The more friendly, and outgoing you are the faster people will get to know, like and trust you. But it is not a personality contest, even introverts can do well in BNI. In fact, introverts tend to do well with the one on one meetings that are central to the BNI model.

The biggest benefit I’ve received through my participation is learning how difficult I was to refer. I didn’t realise how different my systematic approach to marketing was from what people expected. The weekly meetings were an important catalyst for solving that problem. It was BNI that inspired me to create my Free Marketing eBook Series to make Accrue easier to understand and refer to others.

One way to think about your BNI group is as your sales team. You’re all there for the same reason, to get more referrals and to grow your business. For the team to work, everyone needs to contribute. To make it work, you need to realize what you’re getting into and show-up as part of the team. I know it took me a while to figure that out and to a set up a system to help me do that efficiently.

The other benefit of BNI are the friends you make. I’ve met some wonderful people through the experience and I know friendships are a big part of the value I’ve received.

A Key Benefit of BNI is Personal Growth

Having to stand up and introduce myself each week in 35 seconds has encouraged me to refine my introduction over and over and over again. I would have never put that time in, if not for the weekly need to do so. There is nothing like the “deer in the headlight stare”, to get you to rework your introduction.

About twice per year you deliver a presentation to the group and visitors. You have six minutes to make an impression and help train your group how to recognise an opportunity and how to refer you. It’s quite a challenge to say something meaningful and engaging in six minutes. But it is a great opportunity to refine your message. I’ve completed four presentations and I can tell you my fourth was better and more effective than the first few I did.

What’s important is the consistent practice. It’s like learning a sport or playing an instrument. When you’re practising all the time and getting audience feedback, you work hard to get better. Apart from the referrals, I think this constant practice is the most important benefit of BNI. I’ve seen huge gains, simply by practising all the time.

If you’re going to take BNI on, there is a requirement that you become an effective networker. There is no coasting and it has challenged me to approach networking much more rigorously and systematically, which has been a good pattern for me to adopt.

Common Misconceptions About BNI

You don’t join BNI to sell to the other group members. Although once you get to know, like and trust the other people, you do tend to buy from each other. But that is not the point of the group. The point is to tap into each other’s personal and professional networks.

BNI is not just another unstructured networking meeting. The meetings follow a structured agenda and the goal is to generate referrals by following the BNI model.

Key Questions To Ask Your Host

Ask your host to explain how the seat structure works. The promise is that there is only one person per profession. However, the professions are subdivided up so tightly it can be a meaningless distinction. It’s not the same for every seat either. In some cases, the professions are very distinct, whereas in others they are divided up in highly impractical ways. This is my main criticism of BNI. In my opinion, the seat structure is in desperate need of an update. It is not unworkable, just something to be clear on before you join.

Another thing you need to understand are the expectations. I know I did not understand the traffic light system, until after I joined. Make sure you are clear how it works so you know if you can commit.

The traffic light system is a scoring tool for individual members and the chapter as a whole. You and the chapter are scored on a 100 point system that rolls up into a Red, Yellow and Green rating. Everyone starts in the red and your score improves relative to your performance. Getting out of the red is easy if you try, but getting into the Green requires some effort. Ask your host about their chapter’s score, it will tell you how well the group is performing as a whole.

The fourth question I would get clarity on, is what does it take to succeed in your chapter? How much referral business are you expected to bring in each year? Given the other people in the room and the structure of your network, can you generate regular referrals for the other members?  Reciprocity is important and you need to be able to give, as much as you get.

Who Should Not Join BNI?

  • If you’re unable to commit to 6-8 hours per week of networking related activities, don’t join.
  • If you’re looking to show up and not put any real effort into becoming an effective networker, BNI is not going to work for you.
  • If you have a tiny network or serve a small customer base, it might be challenging to offer reciprocal referrals to the group.
  • If you’re not serious about generating work from networking don’t bother. It takes a lot of effort to justify your investment in networking.
  • If you don’t want to build business relationships and be a team player, don’t join.
  • If you have a very specific or elite market niche, it might be challenging to justify your time.

Would I Recommend Attending A Meeting? Yes!

I have found the BNI culture to be very positive and welcoming. The food at our venue is great, the jokes have been plentiful and there is no pressure for visitors to join. It’s just a nice morning out with some great business people from a wide range of industries. There’s a very good chance you’ll meet someone you would like to do business with.

Use the opportunity to experience the process and ask questions, like the ones I’ve suggested. If you like what you see and you feel like you can commit, great. Give it a go for a year. If not, that’s okay too.

What To Expect

The small business owners in the room are high-quality, high-integrity people worth knowing and adding to your list of suppliers. You might make a valuable connection in the process and, if you are like me, it’ll get you out of your comfort zone on a weekly basis. You’ll introduce yourself and your business to a group of business owners each week, which is great practice in-any-case.

If you’re interested and want to learn more about BNI please contact me.  I’m happy to share my experience with you, with no sales pitch.

Calgary BNI Groups

If you’re looking for a chapter to join, you can access a list of Calgary BNI Chapters here. The BNI chapters are not all the same size. Some are brand new and some are over 20 years old. All the chapters are different and have a different feel to them. You’ll want to visit 2-3 different chapters to decide which one is the best fit for you. Don’t forget to ask them about their traffic light score.

Pay attention to the people, the venue and the meeting time. You’ll spend a lot of time with these people and at the event location. If you don’t enjoy both, go check out another chapter. If the timing does not work, find a chapter that meets at a more workable time. Despite the structured format, all the groups are different and you’ll want to find one that fits for you.

I hope this article helps you decide to BNI or Not to BNI for the networking aspect of your marketing system.

About the Author

John Watson is the president of Accrue Performance Marketing. John is a sales and marketing coach and consultant who lives in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He's consulted to start-ups, business owners and corporate executives since 1993. John's an active content creator with a passion for writing, photography, digital marketing and data.

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