By Ann Rea Miller, OD
Compare notes with other small business owners and make valuable local connections.
NETWORK FOR REFERRALS. Join organizations outside optometry to generate new connections.
MAKE VALUABLE CONNECTIONS. You can meet local professionals such as financial planners and marketers who can give you advice on managing your practice.
CALCULATE ROI. Cost can be as much as $400 or more a year and at least an hour per week is sometimes required.
As a small business owner who recently opened her own practice, the insights of other local small business people is valuable to me. Fortunately, I made important contacts through Business Networking International (BNI), an organization for business people with local chapters throughout the world.
Practicing in a city like Lima, Ohio, with a population of 38,771, where word-of-mouth referrals are critical, it’s great to have a large social network because it seems you can find a connection to everyone if you look hard enough. Having other well-known professionals in the community talk highly of you is a great way to get yourself known and generate positive referrals. You don’t even need to be a business owner to join. I joined while still an associate at my former practice
Choose Networking Organization
BNI is a networking organization where one member from each profession is asked to join. The sole purpose of the group is to give its members more business. The philosophy is “givers gain.” If I give business to another member, they often will, in turn, give business to me. This would be a Tier 1 referral. Tier 2 referrals would be when they refer a friend/family member/co-worker to me. In other words, a Tier 1 referral would be if another BNI member visited my practice as a patient. Tier 2 would be if a person whom a BNI member referred visited my practice as a patient, and Tier 3 would be if the patient referred by the BNI member then referred someone else.
I was asked to attend a BNI Visitor’s Day by a patient of mine who is a nurse practitioner. Each year BNI holds a Visitor’s Day to increase membership and create awareness of the benefits of joining the group. I decided to get involved because I was a fairly new optometrist and I was looking for quality referrals and to get known in the community.
Gauge Cost of Participation
You are only able to participate in BNI events if you are a member, or if a member has asked you to attend an event (with intentions that you may become a member). Dues are around $400 per year. There is a $150 one-time registration fee, so if membership results in just one new patient a year you’ve already recouped the cost of registration.
Know What’s Expected of You
the meetings are 1.5 hours per week, along with expectations that you will meet one-to-one with other members to increase your knowledge of what you can do to help others generate quality referrals and vice versa. There are also social events that BNI hosts for members to get to know each other in a more casual setting.
The BNI meetings are very structured and formal. Our meetings took place from 11:30 am-1 pm once a week. The first 15 minutes were for socialization and following up with other members about passed referrals, questions and other issues.
The meeting began by going over what BNI was all about. This was repetitive for all the members, but was very helpful in educating visitors. Each member is encouraged to bring visitors to every meeting to increase membership in hopes of gaining more referrals among the group. An educational coordinator gives a piece of networking education each week. There is a 60-second time slot for each member to talk about what they do, the services they provide, and what their profession is all about. During those 60 seconds you also ask for one specific referral in hopes that another member may know the person you are asking for, or may know of someone who would benefit from what you are offering/providing.
The more someone knows about you, your services and your products, the more comfortable they will be referring you. As people are doing their 60-second presentations, the other members are writing notes to make referrals to that person. There is also a 10-minute presentation each week from one member. This is an opportunity to detail your profession and the type of referrals that are best for you. A box is passed around the room and referral slips are inserted as members share the number of referrals they have given so far to other members, and elaborating on one as an example. After the meeting closes, members talk about the referrals they passed to each other.
The members also thank other members for the closed business that they have received and report the dollar amount of the closed business. Reports are generated periodically so you can keep track of how much money BNI has generated for your business through the referrals
Make Valuable Connections
I met a financial planner who gave me tips on financial management. I also worked with a sign and printing company owner I met through BNI for my business cards, office forms, and a printed canvas wallpaper that looks like an eye chart, but spells out the name of my practice, “VISUAL EYES ESTAB 01/2014,” which is now displayed in the front entrance wall of the inside of my office. I had other signs made that look like my business cards that I used to hang on a car as I went through a parade in my hometown. My building and liability insurance are provided through an insurance salesman I met in BNI. I also met the billboard salesman who set me up with local billboards through BNI, and I buy toner cartridges from Cartridge World, a local business I was connected with through BNI, that recycles cartridges.
Members of my BNI chapter included: a radio salesperson, debt counselor, nurse practitioner, temp agency rep, insurance rep, sign company salesperson, promotional products salesperson, roofing company owner, car salesperson, cartridge company employee, fitness club owner, financial planner and an interior designer, among other professionals.
Learn From Outside Optometry
I think many optometrists have similar mindsets. Talking with those in other fields shows you how professionals you are unfamiliar with are conducting business.
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