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BNI helps businesses develop word-of-mouth advertising

Business Network International business cards are vital for this business networking group. Since a group of local business owners began a chapter of Business Networking International in Willmar in March, two more chapters have been launched. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

WILLMAR -- A new networking organization that helps businesses use relationships and word-of-mouth advertising to increase business is itself growing in Willmar.

Since a group of local business owners began a chapter of Business Networking International in Willmar in March, two more chapters have been launched.

Members of a BNI chapter serve as "sales people" for each in a unique process that involves knowing the current business needs of each member and trying to find a way to meet those needs.

Sometimes that entails passing along a name and telephone number of a potential client to a chapter member. Other times it involves passing along a business card of a fellow- BNI member to someone who could use that company's product or service.

It's an interesting process to watch as BNI members connect during their weekly 1½-hour-long meetings, like the Wednesday 8 a.m. meeting of the West Central Business Builders BNI chapter.

One by one members of the chapter stood up and gave a one minute "commercial" about their business.

An insurance agent was looking for grain farmers in need of coverage.

A photographer was looking for models to help promote a new bridal photo service she was offering.

A company owner that does printing showed off a new laminated flyer and asked if anyone knew a certain auctioneer that might be interested in those flyers.

An independent cosmetics sales woman was looking for women age 25 to 56 for specific events next month in Olivia.

As they spoke, the other 25 members of the group had light bulbs going off above their heads and were madly scratching down names and telephone numbers of business people, friends, family or other contacts that would fit the need of the request.

The notes were quickly passed around the table until they got to the intended person.

At the end of the meeting, they reported on how many referrals they had made that day, gave a "testimonial" that praised a member of work well done or gave a thank you for a closed sale that a chapter me-mber had helped them seal the previous week.

All those referrals and sealed deals are logged into the chapter's records.

The previous week the group helped close $517 in business deals for each other.

Since March, the tally is $220,000.

Those are sales that group members are convinced would not have happened if they hadn't been a member of BNI and had the assistance of their chapter members.

"It works," is what member after member says when asked about BNI.

While some of the business deals happen directly between chapter members, the network relies not just on "the people you know" in the group but also "the people they know," said Terri O'Dowd, area director of BNI.

"We're always looking for ways to find that referral for someone," said Dottie Peterson, from The UPS Store, who is the secretary/treasure for the chapter.

Peterson told a story of one of her customers who seeking a printing job from The UPS Store. That customer also wanted photos taken of their business. Peterson doesn't take photos, but she quickly recommended the photographer in her BNI group who got the job.

That type of referral helped her customer get the service they needed and helped her fellow-BNI member gain business.

"You feel like you're on cloud nine when you make a good referral," said Peterson.

Only one category of a profession is allowed in each chapter. That's why additional chapters are organizing in Willmar, including a chapter that meets on Thursday mornings. The leadership members of the team under six weeks of training to make sure they know the guidelines of the organization and how to run the meetings.

After being accepted in the application process, members are only allowed to miss six meetings a year, although substitutes can fill in during an absence.

Regular attendance increases trust in other and allows members to trust a fellow business owner with "my best customer" and increases opportunities for networking said Rodney Staska, from Colonial Life, who is vice president of the chapter. "We're here to get referrals."

Besides the timed one-minute commercials each week, one member gets to make a 10-minute presentation on their business. Members also arrange one-on-one meetings to get to know each other better.

Chapter members carry a thick book of business cards for their fellow BNI chapter members that they give out. Those books are replenished each week with a fresh supply of cards.

Along with the commercials, note passing, networking and closed deals there is a social element with the weekly meetings.

"It really is fun. You look forward to coming each week," said Stacy Peterson, from Century 21 Kandi Realty who is the president of a new chapter that's forming that will be meet at noon on Wednesdays. She will be holding an informational meeting about BNI at noon Sept. 15 at The Oakes on Eagle Lake Golf Course in Willmar. For more information, call 320-212-1922.

BNI, which has chapters around the world, began 13 years ago in Minnesota. There are currently 163 chapters in the state that have a total of 4,000 members, said O'Dowd.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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