BNI is a business networking and referral organization. It typically attracts small business owners, but it also boasts some Fortune 500 members. Members belong to various chapters of about 25-40 members each. Each chapter meets weekly at a set time and place, for about an hour to an hour and a half, and everyone gives their spiels, passing out business cards and contact information, all in an attempt to promote their businesses and drum up clientele.
So far, so good. Kind of…
For some, clientele from BNI members and their referrals is a major source of revenue. For others, it’s a financial drain, returning a fraction of what it costs. What about for DCs? Well, DCs (Doctors of Chiropractic) frequently find themselves in unique positions in practically any situation. DCs can’t always follow what works for others, because what works for most business doesn’t always work for chiropractic. And even within the field, what works for one DC doesn’t always work for his or her colleagues.
So the short answer to the original question is, it depends. It depends on the DC him/herself. Some doctors just aren’t great schmoozers, while others have never met a stranger. It also depends on the group; some groups goof off too much to get anything accomplished, while others are so stuffy and regimented they forget to laugh once in a while. It depends on the geographic area and its accompanying demographics; some communities are more close-knit and depend more on personal relationships, whereas in other communities, other methods of advertising bring much more return on investment (ROI).
Our clinic was involved with BNI for about a year. The disclaimer is that yes, we are no longer involved with them so yes, it’s perfectly okay to second-guess some of the critical points I’m about to make. I always try to remain objective and rational, however, so none of this is meant to be any kind of mud-slinging or sour grapes.
During our year as members, we made several observations, some of which were not obvious to us until well after we had joined, which is a one-year commitment…
First, there is an interest curve. People will generally show a lot of interest the first meeting or two that you attend. Due to the psychology of repetition, odds are that they won’t act on that interest after seeing you just once or twice, though. Thus, it’s not enough to attend the first two no-strings-attached meetings that they allow you to attend on the house without making a commitment. Once you’re a member, the interest starts to flow–perhaps cautiously at first, but it usually does flow.
Second, the initial interest is often fake. At first, people kind of pretend to be interested in what you have to offer, even if they’re really not, because they’re trying in some way to reciprocate the interest that they hope you show in them as they promote their own businesses. They’re trying to capture you as a client without appearing to hog the conversation, so they nod and smile as you talk. “Oh, you’re a chiropractor? Tell me more! I’ve heard….[some common FAQ we encounter]” Is it genuine? Sometimes it is and sometimes it’s not. After witnessing both, you’ll become more skilled at deciphering which is which.
Third, the non-initial interest is often real, but not for reasons you might think. Yes, some people might actually want to come see you. They were involved in an accident or sports injury or they have migraines no one else has been able to make any headway with. However, what you should know is that behind the scenes, stats are being collected; people actually get points for scheduling with you. The appointment doesn’t even really have to materialize, either (i.e. they could cancel or no-show). It might mean more points if it does, but just the interest counts in some category. Since you meet with the same people weekly, there might be some sort of an accountability phenomenon, but this doesn’t always work; we found many BNI members to be decent upstanding people, but others were flaky and unreliable.
Fourth, while the emphasis is on BNI members referring people to your practice/business and promoting you, many referrals are self-generated. This is called self-referral, or the act of saying, the referral I’m giving you is actually me – I’m going to come see you myself. There’s no harm in this; a referral is a referral and a patient is a patient. But the problem is, this can create an atmosphere of “in-breeding” where the BNI members all use each others’ services and buy each others’ products because they feel a slight pressure to (the whole “statistics” thing) but they don’t end up living out the true spirit of BNI, which is to refer *non*-BNI members to your practice/business as well.
Next, what they won’t tell you is that interest often drops off after a while. Sometimes it doesn’t and if that’s the case, you’re fortunate. For those to whom this *does* happen, realize that it’s not your imagination, and it’s also not just you. The new-ness wears off and those who were going to come see you have already done so; the rest may or may not, but as time passes, the odds increase that they will not. Thus, the lesson learned is, don’t make any large decisions or investments based on the revenue brought from the first few months, because the revenue may not sustain those levels. If business doesn’t stay up, you may not be able to sustain any big decisions you made, so plan wisely for fluctuation.
Understand that many members will tell you week after week, “yeah, man, I gotta come see you, my neck/back has been killing me!” So you give them your card and say, “please–call me, and we can start taking care of this problem.” And they never do. Lather, rinse, and repeat next week.
Also, there are extra-curricular shindigs and meetings that aren’t officially required, but it may secretly count against you if you don’t go. Of course, they won’t exactly tell you this. It might be somewhere in the by-laws or handbooks about “participation” which is indeed a known statistical category, but often, the specific evaluation methods aren’t defined, at least not openly.
…And this (the extra-curriculars) is apparently what bit us. My significant other received a notice in the mail that they had a certified letter awaiting our pick-up at the local post office. This letter stated that my SO was no longer a member of BNI, that they had been denied membership renewal. This was complete news to my SO, and we were shocked. Not once did anyone mention to them that they might be on thin ice or needed to boost a certain stat. Not once was my SO counseled on a single thing. What’s more is, the stated reason was “lack of participation.” Really, BNI? My SO had attended every meeting and participated just fine, even enjoying themselves despite not being a particularly social person. My SO had connected very well with practically everyone there. S/he was using plenty of other members’ products and services and referring other people (non-BNI members) to BNI members when appropriate, despite having been burned/disappointed by some of the members. We had even gone to many extra shindigs, despite them being outside of regular BNI meetings. We even went to a few important ones that hardly any other members from our chapter attended.
So what did we do to get kicked out? We did refuse to mail out 20 letters to our clientele (patients) about how great BNI was and that BNI was for them and they should consider joining. (Yes, they wanted us to spam our patients via regular mail.) We also did neglect to attend a (NON-required) extra-curricular event because it conflicted with a previously-scheduled event at our own clinic. Seriously, that was it.
What’s more is, according to the BNI guidelines, they are supposed to send you a notice if they feel you’re not performing up to par. They made it very clear in their own training/orientation (which we happily attended) that they did NOT just kick members out. Their training stated that they would make at least 2-3 attempts to correct anything that didn’t live up to their expectations or spirit before taking any drastic action. We literally received NOTHING that told us our membership was at risk. No indication whatsoever.
In case you’re wondering if there’s more to the story than you’re being told, there really isn’t. In fact, shortly after being expelled, we ran into a current member (with whom we still did–and still continue to do–business) who asked if we’d gotten the letter but then said he didn’t know exactly what happened. I don’t know if it came as a shock to him or not – I’m not sure if he was BS-ing us or not, but I do know that they dropped the ball quite hard.
Overall, BNI is probably a good organization – it’s not a scam or a cult, and it’s not a pyramid scheme, nor is it brainwashing. The meetings and your membership are what you make them. Do take into account the other factors beyond your control, such as the variables mentioned above (community, etc) and keep in mind that your mileage may vary. Just understand that there is a lot going on behind the scenes as well that you may not realize until you’re already in.