Networking: Relationships or Referrals? (A ranty post!)

It’s weird… one little tweet of just under 140 characters has prompted me to write this rather ranty post. (Yes I know I am apt to rant on occasion but that’s what happens when your life is guided by passion and enthusiasm!)

I was on Twitter today (yes, again!) and I saw a tweet about what real networking is and whether some organisations have lost sight of that.  I then caught a ReTweet by another Twerson (Twitter Person) which commented that real networking was what BNI (Business Networking International) was about.

In honesty, I almost had an apoplectic fit, simply because I have been to BNI (a couple of different groups in fact) and found the experience quite deflating and incredibly uncomfortable.  It wasn’t the Monthly Minute, it wasn’t the predominance of men to women (I’m 6ft 1in, with 135 IQ and can hold my own against any pompous businessman, or woman, in fact).  It was the utter lack of focus on what real networking should be about and the almost maniacal insistence upon generating referrals.  That just made me think – you don’t care about my business you just want to see what’s in it for you.  No thanks!

Ok I understand that not all BNI groups are like this I REALLY do – perhaps I just got unlucky – twice! But it does seem that BNI’s type of networking is focused on growing business as a first-generation result of networking activity.  For me this flies in the face of what networking really is and should be about.

I would like to start with the dictionary definition of network:

2. a group or system of interconnected people or things: a trade network. a group of people who exchange information, contacts, and experience for professional or social purposes: a support network.

Using this definition you could certainly say that BNI and most other professional (offline and online) networks insome way or another support this definition. By that token you could also say that most cars support the definition of 4-wheeled vehicle used for getting from A to B. You can’t say there isn’t a difference between a Robin Reliant and a Mercedes S Class.

Ok I’m NOT saying that BNI is a Robin Reliant (or a Mercedes S Class). What I AM saying is that how a definition is interpreted can vary so greatly that from one extreme to the other, the definition or example of it may become unregcognisable.

And for me, in my humble opinion, BNI is a prime example of this.  It is unrecognisable as a network simply because its interpretation of the definition has gone so wayward.

I know there are BNI members our there who are now getting ready to scalp me and that’s probably fair enough.  As I said before I know all groups aren’t as bad as the ones I seemed to go to, and they probably offer a rewarding networking experience in their own way.  So I get I am writing this post based on my personal experience.

But still hear me out. Which scenario below would you prefer to be in?

So you join a networking group to meet other business people in your local area, to gain support and learn from others, to expand your business contacts and hopefully get some new clients…

Scenario One – Referrals for Breakfast
You turn up, at the crack of dawn (because apparently networking isn’t so important that you can cut into your business day to do it), to be asked how many referrals for THEIR buiness you have brought in, you get hard pitched by everyone in the room before the formal part of the meeting even begins and then you have to stand up and present your business in 60 seconds or less (looking at a sea of suits and smirks). And when you get back to the office there is another email from the local chapter’s star asking if you know of anyone who might be interested in buying products from THEM.

Hang on… didn’t I pay all that money to get some support for my business? Oh yes, I get handed a load of referrals of people that aren’t really interested in doing business with me but have been presented to me just to cover the requirement of referral provision for that meeting.  So I waste my time phoning up people who aren’t really that bothered and in fact simply expressed an oblique reference to wanting to work with a business of my type – umm a valuable lead I don’t think so!  (Yes this actually happened to me at not one but two different BNI meetings!)

Scenario Tw0 – Relationships for Lunch
You turn up for a lunch meeting, having scheduled the time in your diary well in advance, because the meetings are monthly and you can always spare two hours a month to grab some lunch, get some stimulating conversation, chat with other business owners and basically get out of the office for a spell.

Whilst there, you start chatting during the informal part of the meeting about what you have been up to this last month, who you might have met, what you might have learned and listening to the same from others.

The ‘formal’ part of the meeting begins and you do the business card shuffle around the table and you get your 60 seconds (nicely curtailed by the genteel waving of a piece of pink paper – yes we’re all women and we love pink – d’oh!).  During this 60 seconds you finish with what sort of support or help you are looking for this month and if anyone there can help you, they will.  Not because they have a quota to fill but because they want to, or they know someone who is genuinely in need of what you have to offer.  (I’ll take just one of those kinds of leads over 10 slips of forced referrals any day.)

Then you get to hear this month’s speaker. Usually a highly inspirational person, who you can relate to, who may be part of your group, and who has something interesting to share. Whilst listening, you nibble at the buffet lunch and maybe have a glass of wine (because even if you slur slightly or laugh a little too loudly, no one at this meeting will judge you!).

Then as part of the supportive and sharing nature of the group, you get to stand up and say why you have enjoyed this particular meeting, or perhaps you share something you have learned at the meeting, perhaps you want to book a one-to-one with some from the meeting (member or visitor), because something they said caught your ear, or more typically, you get the opportunity to give a testimonial about someone at the meeting.  That’s someone in your group lor outside your group who you have worked with or you know a little better than just from a monthly meeting and you want to give them support and a boost by saying how great they are and why. (There’s nothing more credible than someone else saying how great you are.)

Then you toddle off back to the office, full of a feeling of membership, support and inspiration that you are not the only business person who has doubts, worries, concerns, desire, ambition, ability and savvy.  There are actually loads of them and the great thing is you get to meet up once a month and see how you can help each other today.

I know which one I would prefer.  In fact I guess that’s fairly obvious.  If you want to know which networking group I was talking about in Scenario Two (if you don’t already) then send me an email at alex@justtoobusy.co.uk and I’ll tell you!