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Usually I can ferret out bullshit pretty well. Somehow I let myself get suckered into joining my local BNI chapter. Business Networking International is a business networking organization founded by Ivan Misner a well dressed hair hat with all of the usual con-artist plumage.
The goal of the organization is to bring a group of people representing different professions together once a week to pass sales leads to each other. BNI is a worldwide organization with chapters covering most of the civilized world. Generally any city of a moderate size will have many BNI chapters. Each chapter usually has 10 to 30 members which meet once a week as a group. The theory is that the other people in your chapter will act as your virtual sales team. So joining BNI is like adding 20 to 30 sales people to your sales staff so the marketing says. This is of course utter and complete bullshit. Like so many other sales and marketing heavy organizations the reality rarely lives up to the hype.
Each BNI chapter will be made up of members who represent different professions. A chapter might have an accountant, a lawyer, an advertising professional, a florist, etc. Each chapter is allowed to have only one person representing a each profession. And no one person can belong to more than one chapter at a time.
Each BNI chapter meets once a week. Weekly attendance is manditory and membership will be revoked if you miss more than a few meetings during any one year. Show up late to a meeting and you will get dinged as well.
The BNI meetings are 90 minutes long and all about structure. Every move for 90 minutes is run with military accuracy. There are a lot of little details I’ll stick to the important stuff;
15 minutes of open networking: Before the organized program begins members will spend 15 minutes milling about talking with each other. Sounds great right? Well it isn’t. You have 15 minutes and 30 members so it leads to the rapid fire exchange of vapid pleasantries and not much else. Like speed dating, except with ugly people early in the morning. Generally I’ll spend the entire time trying to avoid the 4 or 5 people that get on my nerves and hope someone will have brought donuts.
Ruthless promotion of BNI propaganda: This is a great time to look at boobs or if you have an internet enabled cell phone look at boobs on the Internet.
Sales Manager Minute: Each member will stand up and give his sales pitch to everyone else in the room. “I’m Mike Hunt and I represent the supplemental insurance slot in the group. My perfect referral would be a dumbass that is so scared of the world that he doesn’t want to come out from under his bed and thinks that he needs to buy insurance for his insurance.”
Upon first blush this seems like such a great system. It certainly sells well in their marketing literature; “joining BNI is like adding 30 sales people to your staff.” The sad reality is that the only thing that anyone is thinking during the sales manager minute is;
Before: What will I say during my sales manager minute?
After: Boy am I glad I’m done with my sales manager minute.
They aren’t listening to you and even if they were after 30 one minute mini presentations no one in the room retained any information anyway. Further if you have any technical detail or nuance that you need to convey how could you do that in one minute? Even if someone was paying attention to you which they aren’t.
Member 10 minute presentation: Each week a different member presents his business to the group during a short sales presention with a question and answer session at the end. This will be the longest and most horrific ten minutes of your life. 10 solid minutes of intimate details of exterminating, year end tax filing or mortgage underwriting in exquisite detail. By minute 8 you’ll want to push a rusted screwdriver though your eardrum just to make the pain fucking stop.
The I have (a fictional) referral for you time: The “I have” time is when members will pass a business referral, share some senseless BNI anecdote to their otherwise banial unfulfilled life, introduce their visitor (sucker) or on occasion blurt out “I love BNI” like a mildly retarded tourettes sufferer. Really the referrals are the meat everything else is just to distract away from the fact that you didn’t bring a referral. The majority of BNI referrals break down in the following categories;
Fictional Outside Referral; Member knows some guy they met that in theory could use your service but when you contact him isn’t interested or can’t afford your service.
Fictional Inside Referral; Another member claims to want to purchase your service but really doesn’t. But it gets them off the hook for another week because they made their “quota.”
Wants Free Shit Referral; Another member gives you a referral so that you can give them free stuff because you want to hook another BNI brother up. It doesn’t matter what you do or what you sell your fellow BNI members will try to get it from you for free.
BNI Results: In seven months of BNI we have received 28 referrals. Of those 28 referrals we closed 3 customers. One didn’t pay their bill. One complained because they thought their bill was too high. And one was a decent small job. Doing the math we generated $1300 in sales minus the $540 we paid our BNI chapter comes to $760 in revenue generated for approx 80 hours of time invested in BNI or $9.50/hr. When you count that my hourly bill rate is many times more than $9.50/hr we’ve actually lost a significant amount of money by belonging to BNI.
There are a handful of people in our BNI chapter that come out the better for their participation. Generally they sell stuff that is so generic everyone is a possible customer; banking, cable TV service, the mortgage guy passes good leads to the financial planner. But for the large majority (us included) it’s a giant waste of time, a disruption in our workday and a waste of money.
If you visit a BNI chapter don’t submit to the relentless pressure to join the group and fill out an application on the spot. Take it home and think it over. If you’re like 80% of the members in my group you’ll end up giving more than you gain.