Is BNI a great business referral group worth the annual fee and time investment, or is it some kind of cult that you should stay the heck away from?
Here’s my experience and understanding of what BNI is.
What is BNI?
If you’ve never heard of BNI here’s a description from Wikipedia:
Business Network International (BNI) is an American franchised networking organization with around 200,000 members in 7,500 local chapters worldwide. Members meet regularly to discuss business and support each other’s businesses by sharing referrals. It claims to be the world’s leading ‘referral organization’.
The official BNI website reports that “last year, members of BNI passed millions of referrals that generated billions of dollars of business for each other.”
They also share a couple of interesting “facts”:
FACT: 98% of businesses rely on referrals to gain new business.
FACT: Only 3% of businesses have a strategy for generating referrals.
I’m not sure where this data comes from or if the numbers are accurate but having worked in marketing for nearly a decade, and having interacted with over a thousand small business owners over the years, I do feel that there is some truth to the suggestion that many businesses don’t have any real strategy for generating referrals.
So BNI basically provides a way for businesses to generate ongoing referrals.
Imagine having a group of people sending you referrals, and essentially being your sales team… very compelling right?
Sure, and you’ll need to consider a few more things before you sign up.
How does it work?
What this typically looks like is a weekly breakfast meeting with your local BNi chapter (group) where the following happens:
- You pitch your business,
- Set up 1-on-1 meetings with individuals within the group (for the coming week),
- Listen to a short educational workshop from one of the members, and then
- Report publicly on any new referrals that you’ve generated for others in the group and/or referrals that have come from other members.
So what’s the catch?
- An upfront annual membership fee (at least $1,000 AUD+) plus ~$20 each breakfast
- Weekly attendance at the early morning breakfast meeting (so you better be a morning person!)
- You need to be returning the favour by generating leads & referrals for your fellow BNI members
So how do you get along to one of these weekly breakfast network meetings to check it out for yourself anyway?
Like any serious business club of course – you need to get invited by an existing member as their guest or as a “stand in” for another member who can’t attend for whatever reason.
I’ve attended a couple of the meetings in the past couple of years (both times as a stand-in helping out my friends who are both members). Whilst I enjoyed the free breakfast and seeing how the meetings are run, I felt both times that BNI is not right for me.
Key reasons why BNI does not work for my business
- As I’m in my first year of a self-funded and bootstrapped business the upfront investment really doesn’t work for me.
- The time commitment – weekly meetings for an entire year is difficult for me to commit to, especially as I’m creating a lifestyle business that allows me to travel so any chance I get to not be in Sydney I’ll take. Add to that the 1-on-1 meetings with other members.
- Then there’s the commitment to find referrals for other members. I’m a natural connector so this really shouldn’t be a problem for me, however based on the types of businesses that I’ve seen at BNi I’m not super confident that I can actually find referrals for them. That’s a problem.
Then there’s the issue of ethics and choice.
Let me explain…
One person I’m connected to in a fb group put it this way:
“Personally, I think it (BNI) forgets a fundamental part of customer logic, which is choice matters.”
Consider this scenario…
Say you join a chapter and there’s a bookkeeper there. Now assume you know another bookkeeper you love and trust (who’s doing your books already).
Then a friend in business comes along and says “Hey, do you know a great bookkeeper?”
Do you refer business to the BNI bookkeeper (because you’d like to grow that relationship plus have them return the favour at some point, thus recouping your membership fee), or do you do right by your friend (as well as the person you have an established relationship with) and refer to your bookkeeper friend?
How can you authentically refer someone to a business if you’ve not actually used their product or service, or truly know and trust the person you’re referring to can actually deliver?
There’s an unspoken rule in business that the person you refer somebody to is inevitably a reflection of you. So if that person does not deliver a great experience for your friend who trusted you when referring them, then you’ve lost credibility.
So it’s the choice thing that poses an ethical problem for me.When referring business to others, who you refer to becomes a reflection on you. Click To Tweet
In addition to the choice conflict I really did not enjoy listening to people pitching their services (and I’m someone who loves going to startup pitch fests), so to hear them do it weekly for an entire year? No Thanks .
So will BNI work for your business?
The best advice I could possibly offer on whether or not BNI is right for you comes from Amanda Griscti, a member of the FlyingSolo online community:
BNI, as with any other networking group is only worthwhile if you are aware of what you want/need from the group and whether that group can deliver it.
I would go along to one for a visit to see you like it, some groups you click with and some you don’t.
Also look into other networking type groups too, dependant on your service and whether the people who attend these groups would need it.
Have you attended a BNI meetup or joined as a member? Does BNI work for you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.