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One morning per week is totally shot, every single week, all year long. Whatever day your chapter meets, whether it’s lunchtime or breakfast time, you need to clear your calendar for the rest of the year. Plan on not being able to go anywhere else or do anything on that day of the week. When I was a member, we met each Thursday at 7:30am-9:00m. But if I throw in a little networking after the group, and some membership committee items after the meeting (because I was in chapter leadership), I effectively had to block out 7:00-10:00am every single Thursday morning. So any events, meetings or functions that happened to fall on that day and time, would not work for me. That got annoying after a while, having no flexibility. People I knew would invite me to business meetings on Thursday mornings and then roll their eyes and say “oh yeah, wait, you can’t… you have BNI…“
Networking is a skill, and one that takes time to develop. I had spent my entire professional life before joining BNI being able to avoid networking and was a little bit afraid of it. I learned quickly that there’s a “way to do it” and many ways not to. Honestly, the best book I found on the topic was Jeffrey Gitomer’s “Little Black Book of Connections.” I bought both the book (and the audiobook so I could listen to it while driving to and from meetings) and found it very helpful in giving me a strong start in the new, scary world of networking. There are some obvious things when networking, like look people in the eye, shake their hands, and other things you could probably guess. But what takes time to learn, even in BNI, is understanding how to phrase your “ask” — i.e. telling people exactly the kind of business you’re looking for, and how people can refer you. That’s the hard part. I figured it out to a reasonably successful level, but some people didn’t, and after giving the same “sales manager minute” every single week, they eventually gave up and quit the group.
Some BNI chapters can be nepotistic or “cliquey.” Notice I said they “can” be. They’re generally very open and welcoming to visitors and new members, but there are definitely some clubs out there that have an unspoken understanding of who’s in charge, who not to piss off, and who you need to impress before you’re able to join the group. Just watch out for these kinds of chapters.
The attendance policy is overly strict. You’re only allowed to miss three meetings in a six month period, which is a total of six meetings per year. That means that except for holidays that chapters may take off depending on the day of the week they meet, you should plan on being there around 46 weeks per year. If you’re taking an extended vacation (say, two or three months) to the Bahamas, you’re going to need to drop out of your chapter because you can’t be gone that long, even if you send a substitute. BNI will only “suspend” a membership by offering you “medical leave,” but that’s only for medical purposes, and it has a maximum of eight weeks and even then you still have to send a substitute. I understand why they do this—they don’t want a chapter’s position held hostage by someone who isn’t there, but it can be really hard to work with if you have a situation that needs time off like this.
The “BNI way” is the “right way,” and there is no other way. The BNI system is set up in such a way to imply that you’ll never be able to do business outside of the BNI way. The unspoken attitude is not just that free leads groups and Chamber After Hours events are different, but that they’re inferior. I’m all about the structure in place, like I’ve said, but I don’t think that the BNI way is “the only way.” There are lots of ways to do business—my business model just happened to jive with the BNI way. I’m sure if you ask a BNI representative, they’d disagree with this point, but you can judge for yourself. As I said, it’s unspoken. It’s an attitude, not something they’d admit officially.
Pressure to perform. There’s often a pressure, whether your chapter has referral requirements or not, to bring a certain amount of qualified referrals every week. When I was a member, I was a small business owner who ran a one-man shop. It was difficult for me to find referrals for the other members of the group, especially because the only people I really knew in business when I first got started were already in BNI(!). So in a way, it felt like I joined BNI so I could give and get referrals, but then I had to go join other groups elsewhere to try to bring referrals into the group. This was a bit of a surprise, and seemed backwards: I joined BNI to get referrals, not so I could go find other groups to join to find them for other people!
The pressure to produce can be so strong, sometimes, that you may find yourself making up referrals on the spot to try to keep up. (Example: you know that your roof is probably OK, but you pass a referral to the roofer in your group to come take a look at your roof, just so you can “have a referral.” I saw this happen numerous times, and this happened especially with the Multi-Level Marketing people—someone would make up a referral for the Mary Kay lady because they knew they could spend a minimum amount ($20 or $30) and still get kudos for passing a referral.) There is definitely “credit” earned for referrals given, and everybody knows exactly how many referrals each members have passed—it’s in the report that everyone gets. …which brings my to my next point:
Your performance is measured. Everything you do in the group is measured. The Vice President keeps track of every single time you’ve been absent, every time you’ve been late, every time you’ve sent a substitute, every referral you have passed (or haven’t), every training meeting you’ve been to (or haven’t), every time you have brought a visitor (or haven’t), the dollar amount of the referrals you have passed, and much more. This is not necessarily a bad thing—it’s just something to be aware of. If the chapter sets goals (and each chapter is able to at their discretion), and you fail to meet these goals, actions can be taken against you. These actions are usually very supportive and intended to help you make the most of your membership, but it is something to be aware of. It can definitely feel like you’re back in kindergarten when you get a notice that you’ve had a few “tardys” in the past few months.
It’s expensive. It costs over $500/yr to join a BNI chapter. For me, it made sense, and I certainly made enough return on my investment to justify the cost. But then you’ve also got to think about food (if your chapter meets at a restaurant), or a room rental (if you meet at a rented location), which can run an additional $5-$15/week. So $500 for membership, plus food can cost you around $750-$1,300/year when it’s all said and done. You can control a lot of that cost by choosing your food carefully, but you need to consider this first. And some chapters have a minimum charge whether you eat anything or not. I can’t tell you how many times people forget the cost of the the room rental and the food when joining. Please don’t join a BNI chapter if you can’t afford it.
It’s more of a time commitment than you realize. It’s easy to say that your chapter only meets for 1.5 hours once a week, and that’s true. But you’ve also got the aforementioned Member Success Program and Leadership Training, in addition to the requirement for having “One to Ones”—where you meet the other members for at least an hour outside of the meeting. And if you get involved in the chapter leadership (as you’ll eventually be pressured to do), your total time commitment can be upwards of ten hours a week. For me, it was worth it, because I made tens of thousands of dollars each year, but that definitely takes time. So you’re going to be pouring lots of time into your BNI chapter right after you join, and you may not see a return for several months.