Back in January I wrote an unkind post about the using BNI to get customers, calling BNI a “customer commodity exchange.” It was based on my experience as a visitor to BNI meetings and then being passed around as a BNI lead a couple of years ago. Then last week, while I was in Savannah, Georgia to work with the Small Business Chamber, I was invited as a guest to a Savannah BNI lunch. Several of the Small Business Chamber members were BNI members so I agreed to attend without revealing my prejudgment.
Instead of a frantic lead exchange, what I experienced was a professionally-run meeting that was a learning experience: businesses learning about each other. I was especially impressed with this particular chapter’s focus on dances. A dance is when two BNI members have a one-on-one meeting to learn about each other. Yes, there were member requests for leads and introductions. But the leads were personalized, no “hot leads” were announced publicly. One member might say, “I may know someone who needs your service,” and then share the contact information privately. This meeting was not about leads, but about referrals; which is the heart of networking.
So why was this BNI experience different? What I discovered was that each BNI chapter is a little bit different. The leadership of the chapter, and the region, determines the flavor of the chapter. BNI Executive Director Amy Kilpatrick is the regional ambassador to the Savannah chapters. Her influence can be seen with the emphasis on dances and professional networking, not lead exchanges.
True to form, Amy took the time to dance with me after the meeting. We took about 25 minutes to get to know each other. I learned that Amy is a former accountant who has a love for professional networking. She likes to teach corporate types how get out of the office and network. While small business owners are adept at getting out and meeting people in the community, it can be a surprisingly difficult task for corporate employees. So Amy left accounting and co-founded Nspired, a company that teaches networking skills. Now that I have met and know about Amy, I feel like I can give her a referral.
So, I’m going to eat a little crow and partially retract what I said in my previous post. It is not the BNI Model that encourages a customer commodity exchange. After all, the BNI motto is ‘Givers Gain,’ a philosophy that will appeal to most entrepreneurs. It is certain leaders and certain chapters that tarnish the model for other chapters. However, that doesn’t absolve BNI of responsibility for the chapters that are nothing more than lead flea markets. BNI should mandate a more stringent set of standards on all chapters. A good model would be the chapters in the Savannah, Georgia area. They don’t swap leads, they exchange referrals. In my book, that’s different.