Once upon a time, well in 1985, Dr. Ivan Misner, my fellow Ecademy BlackStar more or less invented referral networking, at least in the formalised way we see it today. Following my accreditation course to a well-known network of business advisers, or management consultants as they were more likely known twenty or thirty years ago, I was assigned a coach. I had weekly telephone meetings with him to assess my progress in getting work and to help me with my marketing. Remember, this was still in the Dark Ages of 2003.
One day, Coach said to me “You should think about joining BNI or BRE”.
“What are they? I asked.
“I don’t know” said Coach “but they are on the list of marketing tips I am supposed to mention”.
Well, even though it was the Dark Ages they had invented search engines and I would have used Yahoo in those days. I tracked down the local BNI franchise and after a false start try-out with a bunch (or a Chapter) which had totally lost direction I joined a pre-launch core group which was to become a full blown BNI chapter with whom I had breakfast every week (and attendance is essential unless you can send someone to stand in for you).
The big advantages of referral networking are that you learn to get on your feet and sell your business in (usually) one minute and, because it is expected of you, you learn to sell not just your own business but that of the other members all the time you are out seeing your clients. It is a huge confidence booster especially when you are feeling your way in business, and it is great to feel you have the support of other members.
I have to say, though, that BNI was not a great success for me in terms of promoting the business adviser – management consultancy type business, which is ironic given that Ivan was a management consultant when he came up with the idea of BNI. The members of our Chapter were all rather small businesses themselves and not my ideal customer. That was in itself fine, because the aim in BNI and clones of it is that the other members sell your services by passing your business card to their clients or customers, recommending you and promising that you will call. No, the problem for me was that the other members of the Chapter were B2C businesses whereas for me it would have been much better if they had been B2B offering office cleaning, industrial electrical contracting, office furniture fitters or something akin to that, meeting owners of larger businesses with a number of employees. I had similar issues with another referral networking group I joined subsequently.
Still, I was nearly three years in BNI, and stayed mainly because I enjoyed the atmosphere and liked most of the members. I was Membership Coordinator (VP) twice and in my second time ran the meeting for four months after the Chapter Director (President) upped sticks and left. I enjoyed that immensely, which is amazing for someone who was nervous of doing his sixty seconds, let alone a 10 minute presentation when he first started out. Towards the end of my tenure the Chapter’s printer cane up to me at the end of the formal part of the meeting and told me it had been the best run in his three years in BNI. I must have been doing something right! It still did not help me get any business and eventually I decided to leave because of the huge time and investment which was no longer paying off.
Why “no longer paying off”? Didn’t I say that I got very little business advisory work? Well, that’s true. However, this was where the serendipity factor came in. When I joined the core group there was already an accountant filling the relevant category which included the area of my particular expertise, which is direct taxation. He and I became good mates and as tax was not his forte I provided a sounding board for him. My friend was in the process of taking a step up from his small local firm (just him) to joining a firm of accountants in London. They had inherited a major tax investigation into the affairs of one of their clients and when my friend joined they had no one of sufficient experience to deal with HM Revenue & Customs (as they now are) in such matters. I was called it to work solely on this one client, for whom I obtained a very good settlement.
Anyway, I earned for myself over a period of nearly four years some tens of thousands of pounds from this work, which was not related directly to what I was marketing in BNI. The point is to get out there because you just never know.
While I was not a great success in marketing the business helping-hand work I had diversified into, I learned a great deal from BNI though the philosophy of “Givers Gain” which is basically the art of giving in order to get. It is a hard thing to get used to for some, but in fact one can get great pleasure from helping others; I always have, but in case you think I am building myself up here, I have to say that giving is fun. My Grandfather used to say that giving was selfish because one really did it to please oneself. Combine that with giving in order to receive and that is doubly selfish, but it is a great way to go about business. Knowing that one has referred many thousands of pounds of business is in itself very satisfying too.
Give BNI, BRX as BRE has become, or a similar organization a go, especially if you are B2C and dealing directly with the public. Remember you have to be at the meetings, not just because the rules say so, but because you need to gain trust and be seen as reliable and reachable in case there is any slight problem with a referred customer of client. Know that your BNI or other colleagues will work hard and do their best for the referred client or friend because otherwise they will let you down too. Give out as much business as you can and if you receive a fraction of that you will be happy and prosper. And there’s always serendipity. You just never know.
© Jon Stow 2009