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Joining a BNI chapter is an excellent way to get to know lots of business people very quickly. If you’re new to the town you live in, or just aren’t well-connected, joining a BNI Chapter is the fastest way I know of for meeting people and becoming known. It’s structured in such a way that you are required to meet with the other chapter members during the week and get to know their business, as well as talk about your own business. This was one of my favorite aspects of being a BNI Member. It ensures that you get to learn all about the other members, and they get to know all about you.
Established BNI Members are generally trustworthy. While it’s not impossible to get burned by a BNI member, the system is structured so that there’s a LOT of accountability and transparency. If you purchase a product or service from a BNI member and he screws up, you can bet the rest of the chapter is going to find out. So he has an incentive to make things right to protect his reputation. This is good. As I said, this isn’t always foolproof—and the people who most often break this rule are the new members who haven’t already built up their reputation. But if you’re looking for a network of people in all kinds of industries who you have a good chance of being able to trust, BNI is for you.
BNI is extremely structured. Something you’ll learn at “leadership training,” (which is, incidentally, mandatory), is that BNI has a strictly-enforced structure and process for everything. There are two mandatory meetings each year you’ll need to go to: Member Success Program (MSP), and Leadership Training (LT). This is where you learn alllllll the rules, and there are lots of them! What I learned to appreciate about their structure is that it makes it very easy for each member to know what is required of them at all times, and if you take advantage of the system, there’s a lot of support in place.
BNI charges for membership. Why is this in the “pros” list? It is a good thing, in my opinion, because it keeps flakes from joining. You know the type… they show up for one meeting, get everything they can for free, talk loudly about all their products and services, and never come back. Personally, I wasn’t interested in doing business with people who couldn’t afford to take their business serious enough to commit to joining a group (instead of just trying to sell to people they didn’t know). There are lots of other free groups all over town that start up and shut down frequently due to non-committal people like that, and that’s OK for them, but BNI chapters are in it for the long run. And the dues you pay cover the charges for the paperwork and the corporate structure that keeps it afloat.
Attendance is required. Why is this a good thing? For the same reason as above. People who can commit to show up every week are proving themselves to be dependable, generally trustworthy people. If they can’t commit to coming each week, that’s fine, but again, there are other groups for that. I liked the attendance requirement—it meant my willingness to get up early every Thursday at 6:00am to get ready for my BNI chapter meeting meant that others were doing the same. I appreciated that.
It’s not a “leads group.” I’ve already mentioned the free BNI clones that have no attendance policy, but something you should also be aware of is that some of these groups meet for the purpose of passing “leads,” qualified or not. There’s a least one group in my town that has a policy of requiring every person to bring one lead each week. That, to me, is ridiculously arbitrary and pushy. I would never have been able to join a group like that—I hate playing “business card poker”—tossing business cards on the table to whomever wants to pick them up—and I’m very protective of my business relationships. I’m not about to hand out my friend’s business card to someone I don’t know and say “Here you go, this is John’s card. Give him a call. I have no idea if he wants your products or services, but drop my name and that should get you somewhere.” I’m not a used car salesman—I only do business with people I know and trust. And that’s the BNI model, and I was always a BIG fan of that.
BNI has disciplinary policies in place. If a member starts doing a poor job taking care of referrals, or is being unethical, there’s a membership committee ready to handle complaints, and they have a clearly-defined process for conflict management. Generally, it works pretty well, and unethical members “graduate” themselves (our secret word for “get kicked out”) from the chapter eventually.
You can make long-lasting relationships in BNI. Because, as I’ve mentioned, there’s a membership fee, an application process, and an attendance requirement, the people who are in BNI chapters generally stay for a long time—several years or more. Because of this, and because you see each other every single week, it’s easy to get to know people. For example, I haven’t been in a BNI chapter for over three years, and there are people I met in my chapter that I still keep in touch with and do business with regularly. Yes, you can make relationships in other groups, but I really think BNI does the most to nurture these kinds of relationships.
They only allow one person per business category in the group. This is a mixed blessing, and some people love it and some people hate it. This means if a chapter already has a roofer, and a visitor shows up who also has a roofing business, he’s welcome to stay for the meeting, but he can’t join the group, and he can’t advertise his business either. This gives a form of protection to the existing roofer and keeps the chapter captive—which is something your roofer should guard jealously. People join BNI to get referrals from people, and by spending their time and money in the chapter, they’ve earned the right to be at the top of the list. And if you think this sounds unfair to the visiting roofer in my example, fear not: a BNI chapter would be very accommodating in helping him find another chapter that needs a roofer.
There IS a chapter for you, at some place and some time. Depending on the city you live in, there may be two, or ten, or fifty BNI chapters near you. They all meet at different locations, on different days of the week, and at different times of day. If you want to meet on the Westside, there’s a chapter for you. If you want to meet at Southgate, there’s a chapter for you. Want a lunch meeting? There are “lunch chapters.” Are you only able to meet on Tuesdays? There are chapters that meet on Tuesdays. Pretty much anyone’s schedule can fit in with some BNI chapter. You’ve just got to find the right one.
It’s a great place to get over your fears. If you need some help with learning how to network professionally, or get up in front of a group and speak, I can’t think of a better organization to join than BNI. You’ll have a chance to work on your skills for meeting new people, scheduling meetings, learning basic conversational skills, and public speaking. And everyone in the group wants you to succeed so it’s a great place to learn and make mistakes in a tolerant environment.
Now, as I said, I spent about two years as a member, so I can also attest to some of the negative aspects of being in a BNI chapter.