Sunday, December 6, 2009

Helping Make Business Development Work for Our Members: Insights from BNI

I just attended a BNI event in McLean Virginia Thursday morning. Now, I probably lead a somewhat sheltered life as a consultant, focused primarily on my own business and the association sector, but each time I attend one of these (three so far the past two years) I am impressed by the fervor people have for the organization.

If you're unfamiliar, BNI is "Business Networking International." They have quite a few chapters around the U.S. The typical meeting features a round-robin introduction from everyone, a similar sharing of leads and introductions from everyone, a "dog and pony" from one of the members, quick reports from various officers, and a preassigned someone stands up and shares some thoughts on effective networking and business development. Someone manages the clock with a timer & a bell, and every meeting seems to draw about 30-35 people.

Now, I am probably never going to join a local BNI group, as my work lies within a very well defined community where the national and statewide associations serving it are where I spend a lot of my volunteer time and meet many people just like me. But here are a few things that I think associations, especially trades, could learn from BNI:
1) Practice effective chapter management. There is NOTHING innovative about BNI's program or its meetings. They just work and attendance is strong on a weekly basis.
2) Be demanding when you have something that works. They take attendance, and they require regular attendance. In effect, if you don't plan to come, don't bother joining.
3) Facilitate extroversion. I feel very shy when I come to these meetings, but they know they have quite a few visitors every time. So members are trained (or predisposed) to tackle you as soon as the meeting breaks.
4) Ensure business development is an integral part of your mission. BNI is very "over the top" when it comes to networking, but that's because it's their sole mission, but it's particularly critical in trade associations (or IMOs, over a longer timeframe. Professionals look for your help particularly when it's time to find a new job. Fewer transactions, same principle).

#4 is my ultimate point. So often in associations we provide a litany of services: professional development, print/online publications, advocacy, training, etc. But where I see associations frequently fall short (in the eyes of their members, through the research we conduct) is in delivering "real bottom line benefits" or serving as a "source of new customers or clients." But how often do we gloss over this last point, and fail to build actual lead generation into our trade promotion and outreach campaigns? There are some associations that do run 1-800-FIND-A___ lines, and who collect online leads and redistribute them to their members. No matter how flawed the program (or how onerous it feels to manage) THESE programs are easily understood and well-appreciated.

In the associations I've worked for this business development lead generation occurred through local programs, networking and the random personal exchanges that constitute everyday life, but I'm not even sure the chapter staff and volunteers fully appreciate the value of what they deliver. Networking can feel like an end unto itself, and we all feel more comfortable--impartial and fair--by not getting in between our members competing for business.

I have always felt that's a well-intentioned but mistaken philosophy. Being impartial and transparent is critical, but as associations, the more we do to be visible places that end-users would logically contact to find a florist, or a business valuation expert, or a demolition company, the better we fulfill our entire mission... only as long as we immediately share that lead with our members. In baseball every closer needs a good setup man or two. So do our members--especially in this economy.   -K

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