By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
In business nothing is cherished more than good word of mouth.
By the same token, nothing is feared more than a bad review.
This past month, I came across a group for whom the positive referral is everything, and not a bad word was being said about anybody.
I was privileged to be invited to a gathering of Business Network International in Highland. The chapter calls itself REAL, for Referral Exchange Action Leaders. It’s comprised of a lot of very average business people who show a very above-average interest in helping each other.
Their breakfast meetings are held every Thursday morning at the Baymont Inn and Suites in Highland. The sessions are highly structured, part of a global organization started back in 1985 to boost the ability of professionals to market their business through referrals.
BNI, as it is known, is not typical among networking groups. For one thing only one person from a particular professional classification is permitted to join a chapter. So, it’s unlikely you’d find, say, two architects, in the same chapter. There are 7,800 chapters around the world, and several are in the St. Louis metropolitan area, which falls under the five-state BNI Mid America Region.
The Highland chapter, which has gone through a couple of rebirths as businesses come and go, is about six years old in its latest incarnation. It’s still growing and potential membership is wide open. The day of my attendance I met a real estate agent, a painter, an insurance woman, a graphic designer, a mortgage officer, and many others including my personal favorite, a guy who specializes in “honey-dos.”
A round-table format allows members to introduce themselves and tell the others present what they are looking for in the way of business. The insurance agent, for example, was looking for young drivers who might be interested in new program discounts. The graphic designer was looking for summer camp groups who were in need of screen-printed shirts.
A box with stacks of business cards was passed around the table and attendees pulled out cards that they thought they might be able to use or pass along. Often, group members will meet outside the scheduled meetings to conduct business in what is called one-on-ones.
As a businessman, I belong to several chambers of commerce and was a Rotarian at one point in my career. Both are great ways to meet people, but business referral is not their chief reason for being.
BNI is a different kind of network, with ultimate focus on members gaining clients for themselves and each other. Membership requires meeting attendance and seriousness of purpose. The motto, known around the world, is “Givers Gain.”
If anything tells of BNI’s success, it may be the local numbers. In 2016, BNI said its marketing system helped more than 2,800 business professionals in its BNI Mid America Region generate more than 90,000 referrals for each other that resulted in more than $950 million worth of closed business. BNI estimates that 71 percent of all referrals result in closed business for members in the region. Nationally, BNI claims that members generate an average $27,500 a year in revenue.
Members are regularly updated on their chapter’s referrals, right down to the amount of money made as the result of new contacts. Referrals are tracked through a variety of means.
BNI requires modest application and membership fees. A membership committee reviews applications before accepting new members. Once you’re in, though, you’ll get a warm welcome.
A few days after I attended the Highland session, I got a personal note from Victor Muzquiz, the executive director of BNI Mid America, thanking me for my participation. He lives in O’Fallon, Ill.
“BNI offers a unique opportunity for our members to grow their business in a supportive, professional environment. We love having visitors because they enhance our member experience and can benefit from their visit to our chapters as well,” he said.
He said anyone interested in growing a business through referrals is welcomed to reach out to him for information. He can be contacted at email@example.com or through the bni.com website.
Dennis Grubaugh is editor and partner of the Illinois Business Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (618) 977-6865.
By DENNIS GRUBAUGH