This document will answer the most common questions about professional networking organisations. If you are already familiar with them, you will probably not need to read this. If not, it is encouraged that you read the entire document, so that you have a solid grounding in why and how they are set up.
The following questions are answered :
What exactly *is* a professional networking group ?
They're pretty simple, really. A group of businesspeople meet each week at a pre-specified day and time and trade leads. This increases the number of contacts each business has access to, and helps all involved to make better profits and to build a wider system of connections in the business community.
The better organisations screen businesses for integrity and reputability before allowing them to join, thus ensuring the quality of work done by the members and making it easier for each member to make recommendations for the others.
Normally there will be only one business in any given field in a chapter. One lawyer, one accountant, one window washer and one restaurateur, etc. This prevents conflicts and insures a greater increase in business for each member. Once a chapter is set up, the members vote on the proposed additions to the group, based on their impressions of the prospective members character and business record.
Loyalty to the members in the chapter is strongly encouraged. This increases the strength of the organisation, thus making the chapter more durable and more valuable for each member.
How do they work ?
Throughout the course of the week, most businesses run into people looking for certain things which they themselves don't supply. Members of a networking group will keep these "leads" and pass them on to other members who are involved in the specific field required at the next meeting.
When you have a group of 25-50 businesspeople who know what you do and who you are watching for leads for you, this can add up to significant additional business.
Where and when do they meet ?
Meetings will usually be either early mornings or lunch times. This will depend on the needs of the membership as a whole. Normally they will meet in a restaurant meeting room or similar setting. A meal is served at each meeting. The gatherings generally last an hour to an hour and a quarter.
What happens at the meetings ?
Meetings will be kept generally to a standard format, and will be somewhat formal to ensure the business mindset is maintained. The routine will vary depending on the organization, but will generally follow the same pattern.
At each meeting, during the meal, each member will be required to stand and do a 30 to 60 second explanation :
Business cards will also usually be passed around at each meeting.
Who can join ?
The qualifications are simple. You must be a business of top caliber in your field and geographic area, you must be willing to invite similar guests, and you must be willing to provide leads for the others in the group just as they provide them for you.
Only one member from each profession is allowed. When a chapter starts up, the founder will look for a few people (1-3) in different fields. These will be chosen according to the organizations guidelines. After that, the members will invite guests, based on a quality reputation and the guests personal integrity. These guests will be seeing if they are comfortable with the group as much as the group will be deciding the same thing about them.
If the guest is interested, they will usually be invited back for a second meeting. (They will have to pay for the meal at the second one.)
After that, the group will vote on whether or not to accept them for membership.
Why only one person from each profession ?
It makes sure that each person gets the maximum benefit from their membership. This is another reason for choosing top profesionals in their fields.
There is also the factor of avoiding conflict within the group. Many times, hard feelings could be generated if there were two or more people in the same profession competing for leads and the person supplying them had to choose who got them. This avoids uncomfortable situations for all involved.
Who from a company attends the meetings ?
Usually it is the owner, but it can be a designated representative if the company chooses that form of representation.
What occupations are the most common ?
Real estate professionals, insurance brokers and accounting and legal professionals are the most common professions. Each of these groups encounters generally more people in the course of a week. These groups also have a greater tendency to network as a part of their daily business.
People responsible in their companies for developing new business through associations and similar channels will also be common as members.
How do you know the members are reputable ?
The process of selection involves checking references, personal recommendations from established members, and checking length of time in business. Other criteria may be established, varying with the different organisations.
It is in the best interests of the chapters to make sure that only reputable businesses are allowed membership. Their reputations are also involved when they give someone a referral.
How do you get invited ?
Usually you must be approached and invited by a member. If you are interested but don't know any members, other approaches may also work. One is to check with the chapter president and see if your field is represented, and go from there if it is not. If the field is open and you meet the criteria, the chapter president may assign you as the guest of an existing member.
Do I *have* to speak in front of the whole group ?
Yes. You will get an opportunity to tell them about yourself and your business, as well as how they can help you. For the most part this will only be for a minute or less at a time. You may be required to speak for as much as 10 minutes at a time once or twice a year.
Many people who get involved in professional networking groups find the confidence and speaking skills they gather to be worth the time by itself.
What if I don't know anything about networking ?
A good organization will provide training. It is really a simple process. Certainly much simpler than the day to day operation of your business. Groups will normally have training sessions and materials available to help you if the concept is new to you.
This business of counting leads seems like a lot of pressure.
It can seem like it. There is a certain amount of "work" in networking, but not nearly as much as in other ways of getting new business. It is primarily a way of thinking, being alert for the needs of others and offering to help them out. This is really what you do when you give a referral to a quality business for a customer with a genuine need.
In the beginning it will seem a bit awkward. It usually does. You will pick up the knack much faster than you would expect. And it is necessary that you provide leads to others just as they provide them to you. It is an open and fair exchange of business assistance.
How do I *know* I'll get additional business ?
The practice of limiting membership to one person in a given profession is partly to ensure this. Most groups also have listings of the types of businesses that benefit most from networking. It is not in anyones interest to have one-sided trades going on.
Also, if for some reason you are not getting the leads that others receive, the better groups will have programs in place to help focus the other members on finding you business. This is based on tracking by a "lead officer". These organizations work best when they work openly for everyone.
Why do they vote on accepting members ?
They will be recommending the new members to family, friends and business associates. Each of these people puts a certain amount of their reputation and their relationships with others on the line each time they recommend someone to them. They want to know that the person they recommend is someone they can trust to handle their dealings with integrity.
What if someone joins and does shoddy work ?
Because of the screening process involved this will be very unusual. It does happen on rare occasion. When such an event occurs, the groups will usually have an ethics officer look into the matter and make a recommendation. If the matter cannot be resolved and is in fact the fault of poor workmanship or an unwillingness on the part of the business to correct a mistake, the business will be expelled from the group.
Do we have to bring guests ?
Yes. Members are expected to help increase the range of both available leads and services. You will be expected to bring businesses of similar quality as yourself.
Most businesses find this a fun part of the organization, since they will also be seeing the additional success they receive from their own membership. It is more likely that you will have people approaching you than that you will need to approach them.
What are the dues used for ?
Mostly for the maintenance of the chapter. Usually chapters will have various functions to help get more public exposure and greater attention. This develops the members as business leaders, and increases the number of people who want to join.
Also, the chapters will usually operate under a non-profit status, and part of the dues will go to maintenance of the umbrella organisation, which will co-ordinate functions between chapters, and arrange for transfers when they are needed. The main branch will also provide legal counsel for keeping the organisation within proper guidelines and free of liability.
ProfNet is a professional networking group with over 30 chapters throughout the US and expanding to international markets.