We’re in the midst of a recession and many people are looking to join business groups to try and drum up sales. But with all of the Internet’s business networking opportunities, are offline business networking organizations still needed?
The world’s largest business networking organization is the famous Business Network International (BNI). BNI groups are everywhere. Pick up a newspaper in any major city and you will find invitations to join these groups in your local community. Use a search engine with “your location” and “bni” as search terms and you will probably find one nearby.
A second offline, real world business networking type of group is your local or regional Chamber of Commerce. These groups are similar to BNI groups in that they are meant to promote local businesses. They are also commonly referred to as a local Board of Trade.
A third type of business group is the private business networking group. These are run by companies and they often search for business people with specific criteria (such as executives with higher salaries, companies that reach minimal financial brackets, sales representatives who bring in over a million dollars in sales per year, and so on). In the next part of this article, I will focus on this type of offline business networking group.
Let’s Get Going! (or Not)
I was called by Marcie Balaban, a “qualified motivational sales expert” (as stated on her website) . She runs a company in Montreal called Let’s Get Going. This was a cold call and while I usually get rid of telemarketers within seconds of answering the phone, I was struck by her enthusiasm. She told me that there were many people in her business group who were either looking to buy into my services or had many connections to people who would be interested. I have to re-iterate that her enthusiasm got the best of me and so within a few days I met with her and paid the fee (about $1,000, although now it’s much higher), and I was ready to roll.
It’s important to note that this was the first time that I ever paid anything to anyone to generate leads. Read that last sentence again. I didn’t need this service. I’m an accomplished, effective SEO and Internet marketing expert, and I’ve been able to keep my companies very busy for years. Based on what was promised, I figured that it would be easy to make back the fee as well as the time it would take out of my schedule to network through this organization. However, I do recognize that it was a gamble.
Networking Group Review
Here’s my experience from the Marcie Balaban Let’s Get Going business networking group. Please note that this was heavily edited as I do not intend for this to be a “trash the organization” type of blog post. Take this part as a case study based on my experience.
- Sales: There were clearly some people who made sales and hence the ever-important return on investment (ROI).
- Meeting New People: It felt good to meet new people outside of the office. Many of the people were generally friendly.
- Longevity: Some people had been with the group (or at least a business associate of Marcie’s) for a long time which indicated some stability.
- Quality of People: I found that some of the people I met were very good at what they did. A small handful were the equivalent of me in the sense that they really knew their stuff within their industry or specialty. I liked that a lot.
- Clicking: I clicked very well with one person who was in my industry but not a direct competitor.
- Location: The meetings took place in offices that were fairly close to my own office which meant I could save travel time.
- Quality of Businesses: Most of the people I met were “one-man shows” and small mom-and-pop type shops with little money to spend on Internet marketing and few connections to people that did have money.
- Lack of People: Aside from a few new people coming in from time to time and aside from the first couple of weeks of membership, the entire Let’s Get Going process was to get me to meetings every 2 months or so, where I would meet the same people over and over. Approximately 80% of people at a given meeting were the same ones I had met at previous meetings, and most were very small businesses with little money and fewer connections.
- No ROI: I did not close one deal with a member of the group but spent a significant amount of time giving a lot of free advice to people who would never pay my consulting rate, or who asked me to spend time writing a detailed proposal and then never returned my calls or emails after I sent it (or worse, would tell me at meetings that they were going to approve it soon and then never did).
- That Suckered Feeling: In the end, when I had a more clear view of what had happened to me, I saw it as essentially being the equivalent of a telemarketing company that gets people to join, with not much to offer me. At the last meeting I attended, a handful of new members were attending their first meeting and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. It was like I was stuck in this dead-end business group and I had a feeling of “oh look at these new suckers… too bad they are probably going to learn the hard way like I did.”
- Lack of Internet Use: Aside from poorly written emails (often full of errors such as my name and companies being misspelled, dates/location/time errors, etc), there was no clear attempt to use the Internet that I could see.
- No Infrastructure: I got the overall impression that this business group primarily focused on Let’s Get Going making money, with no visible investment in infrastructure. The lack of Internet use is part of that, as are the fulfilment issues noted below.
- Complaint Sessions: I didn’t enjoy the complaint sessions. After a while, there were many people who expressed their disillusionment with the lack of success in the group and they would whine about how they weren’t meeting the people they were told they would, making the sales they were lead to believe would happen, and how they felt they were ripped off. While I may have felt the same, I didn’t enjoy coming from my positive thinking and upbeat office to an atmosphere of negativity.
- Lack of Fulfilment: This is posssibly the worst part of my business networking experience. I can’t say for sure but this probably wouldn’t happen in a Chamber of Commerce or a BNI meeting. So here it is, in addition to the fee, I was asked to sign a contract. The contract stated that I would receive a number of features. Unfortunately, almost none of the features that were listed in the contract were fulfilled.
The following is a brief summary based on the Let’s Get Going contract:
- Weekly call or email with a lead: I received 2-3 right in the beginning (out of a possible 52 total for the year).
- Weekly follow-up: This happened once or twice (out of a possible 52).
- Weekly calls logged: None (out of a possible 52).
- 52 minimum planned introductions: Based on business cards gathered, I met about 35-40 people over the year.
- Company goals sent out: No.
- “Monthly meetings to build longterm relationships”: I had 7 meetings (out of a possible 12 for the year). That comes to about $160/meeting. (Basically, I paid about $100/hour to sit and listen to small business owners give their pitch over and over.)
- Group meetings with presidents: This happened once in a while if you really stretch it and mostly include the very small business owners who attended the “monthly meetings.”
- “Extensive follow-up” for these meetings: Not even one follow-up.
- Sales coaching: I specifically requested this right from the start and it never happened. To me this was a great aspect of the contract and it was something I really wanted. I asked about setting it up on 3 occassions but there was never any sales coaching. That alone could have been worth the price but I didn’t get any whatsoever.
- Company profile emailed to at least 100 companies: No.
- Telephone tips (“How to speak better on the telephone”): No.
- A Copy of “Marketing Your Greatest Asset… You” written by Marcie herself: Despite repeated requests for a copy, I was never given one. When I pointed that out one final time at the end of my year, Marcie refused to give me a copy since it was the end of my membership and I wasn’t renewing.
- The list goes on…
As can be seen from the above, almost every item in the contractual obligations list was not fulfilled. This left me with a feeling of being ripped off (among other negative feelings…).
Questions to Ask Before Joining a BNI Type of Group
Does your business website or Internet presence reflect what you do?
Ultimately you join business networking groups (online and offline) for a source of referrals. If your website isn’t up to the standard it should be, then you should take action to get it there before joining a group. It is naive to think that the first thing people will do after they meet you is call. Before they do, they will look you up online to see how legitimate your company and its reputation appear. If you’re going to join a networking group, make sure you are well represented online. A lot of people will go back to the office and talk about you with their boss. Their boss will then want to see your website. Make sure yours reflects your company.
What do you sell?
If you sell support products like printing and promotional products, I don’t see how you can make much money in these groups. There are so many of those types of businesses in these groups. I came across far too many printers in the group I joined and from speaking with various printers who compete with each other in other offline business networking groups, I can’t see the ROI potential.
Is the investment justified?
Think about what return on investment you can reasonably anticipate based on the fees for joining. If you sell products that cost very little, you will have to sell a lot. For example, if you sell pencils, it will take you a lot longer to make your money back than say, if you sell photography equipment.
Do you have the time?
Consider how much your time is worth. A time commitment plays a large role in these groups. If you’re already very busy and you can’t send a sales rep, it may not be ideal for you. Some groups make attendance mandatory. Others make it compulsory to have a new lead each week, meaning that you need to spend time speaking to contacts and seeing if they are interested in being pitched.
Who do you need to meet?
Think about your target market. From my own experience and after speaking to a number of people who are BNI and Chamber of Commerce members, there seems to be a consensus that you are going to meet mostly the same people all the time with new faces showing up from time to time. That means you will hear the same information pitched over and over again. Will these people be offering services that you and your business associates need?
Can you speak to current members?
Ask to speak to several members before joining. Perhaps a mix of someone who has been in it for 3-6 months and another individual who’s been involved for a year or more. Additionally, consider what industry they are in and ask whether or not they believe your industry could benefit in that particular group.
Will someone help me with my pitch?
In my business networking meetings, I found that most of the people in the group give poor quality pitches. I found it rare that anyone’s pitch clearly explained what they did, much less compel people to hire them or tell their friends and business associates about them. If you’re going to join a business group, make sure someone is there to coach you on how to give better pitches. In my experience, many group members didn’t even understand what other people are pitching. I know that for a fact since they would often lean over and ask me “what is that guy selling…?” It’s just like what I always say about having a persuasive website, that is, clearly explain what you do and how you can add value to others.
Can you attend a complimentary meeting?
Attend a meeting before you join. See what it’s like. What kinds of industries are represented at the meeting. Consider how it feels to be in attendance. Friend and fellow marketer Jeff Shore recently commented that he stays away from any business group that feels cult-like. I would tend to agree.
Networking & The Internet
From my perspective, joining a privately run business networking group was beyond a complete waste of time. I began thinking about what could have been done to bring people together using the Internet and digital methods to get more out of such an organizations.
One of the main drawbacks in the group that I joined was based on a lack of communication tools. I don’t know a lot about how these groups are typically run but what I don’t understand is why there wasn’t more use of the Internet and website? I think that there should be a username and password assigned to each member where people could see who else is in the group and what services they offer.
Aside from this type of directory, there should be a members-only message board and forum on the website that contains a list of all 5 à 7 parties, upcoming meetings, and so on. Social networking and business networking has moved online and the failure to take advantage of that as the organization grows is simultaneously short-sighted and almost a disservice to members.
Many small business owners feel out of touch with technology and online social networking opportunities such as using LinkedIn. I could have given a talk to educate members on how they could use social media to their advantage.
Will Business Networking Groups Fail?
If networking groups are going to continue to be useful, they need to adapt. Businesses no longer operate in a vacuum. If you want to see who the competition is in just about any industry, it doesn’t take long to find out who’s out there thanks to the Internet. One can no longer assume that if they attend a meeting that they will be viewed as the best game in town and people will automatically buy from them just because they’re in the same group.
What People Want
Just like sales everywhere else, supply, demand, and pricepoint will remain major determining factors as to whether or not people will buy from you in these groups. If you’re selling an inexpensive service, it will probably be easier to make the sale. On the other hand, there may be multiple people selling the same service in the group. Remove the risk, make it cheap and people will be interested.
Adapting to Technology
Internet technology makes it significantly easier to network in a controlled situation. By controlled I mean that you can look for whatever is useful to you whenever you want and reach out to people as needed. Contrast this with the more contrived, forced meeting of people at networking group meetings.
At least initially, the Internet also cuts done on obvious uncomfortable feelings you may experience when being in the group. For example, one person in my group did a particular type of work that someone else did and essentially asked for a job. When the person looked into the work, he found that it was far below the standard that he was accustomed to. This lead to “all kinds” of awkward feelings when they would meet. Someone else pointed out that they felt awkward knowing that they generated far more income and that their business was much more successful and stable than some of the other members. The Internet removes that degree of awkwardness to some extent. As more people realize that, they may be more likely to stick to Internet networking.
How to Network Online
This is far more complex than what I will write here but simple ideas can go a long way in some cases. Get your website optimized for search engines and make sure it’s useful to visitors, then join LinkedIn, start a blog, comment on other people’s blogs, join Twitter, and become active at these activities on a continual basis. I know that most people won’t have time do get heavily involved but if you do have some time to spare, I suggest at least reading what’s out there and make connections as needed. By targetting your connections, you may get more out of the Internet than you could from offline networking.
In sum, business networking groups are moving online and failure to take advantage of that fact may prove harmful in the long run. I joined a business group with the best of intentions and to my surprise, it became a very disappointing experience. Based on my experience, the group I joined was experiencing rapid growth but the lack of investment in appropriate support, clearly defined goals, use of the Internet, and unfulfilled features were all cause for leaving the group. I’ll have to chalk this one up to experience.