my new networking group uses high-pressure sales tactics

A reader writes:

As these networking and referral groups proliferate, I may not be the only one with this type of question. I appreciate your thoughts.

I’m a professional, with a professional degree in the field in which I work. I receive a salary, but also half of whatever business I bring to the company. When I announced to a group of friends on facebook that I had joined a new company and that I do X, Y and Z work, should anyone be in need, one friend invited me to a networking and referral group of which she is a member. I went to a couple of meetings, liked some of the people involved, and discussed with my boss, who thought it was a great idea and generously offered to pay for my membership (which is not cheap).

As I get further into this networking and referral group, however, I’m having reservations. I am not a salesperson. I feel very uncomfortable with some of the sales tactics employed, and the pressure to employ those tactics to promote not only my own business, but other members’ businesses on social networking sites, etc. Because of my profession, I am bound to be sure that the other professionals to whom I am referring my clients are what they seem to be (and to stay professional, not to hawk candles and cleaning products on my facebook page). I am making the effort to get to know some of the other members (though there are some I prefer not to get to know). There are a few people in the group, also new members, with whom I really do believe I could establish good referral relationships — part of the reason is that these peoples’ businesses naturally compliment my own. These few are not really salespeople, either, and we’ve discussed our reservations privately, but they’re not sure how to respond to these pressures, either.

There’s also pressure to buy from the home-based businesses which make up about half of the membership – their products include candles, cleaning products, jewelry, etc. It’s all overpriced and nothing I would normally buy – moreover, on my salary, I really can’t afford those “extras.” I get the impression that the thought is “If you don’t buy a candle, I won’t use you when I need a [insert my profession here].” (For what it’s worth, if candle-lady referred me a good client and fee, I would consider it a cost of doing business to buy a candle with part of that fee.)

The other major pressure is to get friends and acquaintances to visit a meeting – the thought being that about one out of every ten visitors becomes a member. I’m having trouble doing this, because, again, I’m not a salesperson. If someone tells me no, they don’t need my services, or no, they aren’t interested in a networking group, I say “ok!” and change the subject. I’m not at all sure that this group is right for me, but as my boss has already paid my membership fee, I need to play this game, without compromising my values and manners, and get out of it what I can. (I haven’t had a chance to discuss this in-depth with my boss, but I know her well enough that I’m sure she’d be uncomfortable in the same situation, she is not a salesperson-type personality either.) How can I put my reservations on hold and make something of what could be a good opportunity? Am I thinking about this all wrong?

This doesn’t sound like a networking group. It sounds like a sales group, with a small potential for networking on the side.

I’d quit the group. It doesn’t sound like whatever benefits you’re getting from it are outweighing the fairly significant disadvantages, like inappropriately pressuring your friends and family, buying products you don’t want, and promoting businesses you don’t feel comfortable promoting. And in fact, any venture that does these things is usually a venture that you don’t want to be involved with.

I think you’re hesitating because you’re wondering if maybe you’d be more comfortable if you were just more of a “natural salesperson” — but that’s not why you’re feeling uncomfortable. You’re feeling uncomfortable because the group’s practices are legitimately sketchy.

See if you can get the membership fee back, at least prorated for whatever portion of the time you paid for won’t be used — but if you can’t, consider just repaying your boss so that you can drop out without qualms. (And your boss is likely to tell you not to repay her, but you should at least offer.)

{ 39 comments… read them below }

  1. Rob

    This sounds like BNI. It’s a shame the OP got wrapped up in this group (if this is indeed the group), because it’s almost like the Amway of ‘networking.’

    That being said, there is no reason to stress out about this. Alison gives good advice and just quit if possible. Definitally don’t renew your dues if that time is approaching and consider it a lesson learned!

    1. OP

      Thanks so much for answering my question, Alison. Unfortunately, I know I can’t get my dues back, so am hoping that I can at least get a couple of referrals to pay for my membership. When I reach the end of my tolerance on the sales stuff and if I have not covered my membership with business brought in, I will absolutely offer to pay my boss back.

      Rob, it is a group that is pretty much the same thing as BNI, but has a different, rhyming name. I joined after checking with a friend in BNI who does the same thing I do, and he said he got a third of his business from BNI when the group was at least 20 people. My chapter isn’t that big yet. But I’ve already received blank stares a couple of times for saying things that make it clear I haven’t yet “drunk the Kool Aid.” I’m not fooling anybody so far.

      1. TheSnarkyB

        Is there any way you can, without tarnishing your reputation, make it clear that people value a referral from you because you personally vet things you recommend? Whenever I need to do a “I value my integrity too much for this B.S.” thing, it helps if I try to adopt a holier than thou mindset that doesn’t come naturally to me. Maybe if you seem to take yourself incredibly seriously, it’ll be intimidating enough that people let you pick your recommendations selectively?
        Depending on the context, this could also be a terrible idea, so…

        1. OP

          Haha – love this idea, will have to think about how it would work in practice… Worst they could do is kick me out, right??

      2. pidgeonpenelope

        I wouldn’t refer anyone to that group because it will tarnish your reputation. I mean, chances are, you’re probably not all that happy with your friend and it’s likely you won’t trust her opinion in the future right? Don’t do it to someone else. Besides, it just fuels the pyramid scheme.

    2. AG

      Ugh I was invited to a meeting like this once (BNI, which is apparently very similar), it seemed so bizarre. Sorry you got wrapped up in it, OP, it sounds like it’s time to gracefully untangle yourself.

  2. Nameless

    This sounds like one group that tried to recruit me and told me to transfer all my utilities to them. Very sketchy indeed. One of the greatest lesson I learned was, if you are unsure and uncomfortable about the products you will be selling then quit.

    1. Anonymous

      Utility Warehouse? Oh yes. Came across them in networking. Their prices are supposed to be good, though.

  3. Anonymous

    Let me guess…BNI?? I’ve been to two meetings, never signed up. I have friends who have found it VERY important in getting clients. It works really well for some people. I hated it.

    If you’re a woman, look into women’s business networking. Same concept, much softer sell. Also, from my experience, not as effective in getting clients. But great for networking.

  4. OP

    Close — RLI.
    I am a woman — went to an affiliated women’s networking meeting week before last… I kid you not, they sang “I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.” I just about crawled under the table…

  5. Brook

    OP, I think that your instincts are good! Referrals that only come in trade for other referrals are worthless, and if clients come to understand what is happening, it won’t be good for your reputation, or your long term prospects. Refusing to buy items that you don’t want or need is sensible, and refusing to promote businesses that you don’t have good reason to think highly of shows integrity!
    You can’t buy back your reputation once it’s damaged, and you can’t get facebookers to pay attention to your feed after flooding them with commercial posts. Be really choosy in what you promote, it will pay off in the long run.

  6. Not So NewReader

    OP, I don’t know what sector you work in. However in some fields it is illegal to exchange anything of value for referrals/business. (This would preclude you buying candles with the promise of referrals or business later on.) If this is your field you could simply say “I can’t jeopardize my license(s).”
    I am sorry for your nightmare.

    I am kind of new to this networking stuff too. Any advice on how to pick out a GOOD networking group?

    1. OP

      This is a very good point — in my state, I can actually pay a referral fee to those who also hold my license, but to no one else. My licensing authority doesn’t have a position on these types of “networking” orgs, and my initial thought was that since there are a number of ways to earn the points I need per month to remain a member in good standing (referral to another member, bringing a guest to a meeting, meeting one-on-one with another member), it’s technically not a tit-for-tat thing with the referrals, like paying for them.

      1. Not So NewReader

        Right. It gets dicey when you promise to buy candles/tupperware/etc and receive referrals- or worse a business transaction– in exchange for your purchase.
        Some sectors are being heavily watched by the regulators- People in those sectors would want to steer clear of anything that is open to misunderstanding. (People want to be above reproach.)

        Sounds like you are probably okay, tho. I was just thinking that if this were true for your work it would have been a nice way to get out of the nonsense for you!

  7. KarenT

    OP you have my sympathies! I got anxiety just picturing myself in a group like that. I agree with Alison–quit.

  8. B.

    I almost got involved in something like this but I sensed the sales-y aspect early on and never signed up. They are still calling and emailing me to pressure me to join! I felt like I was being brainwashed. Definitely quit as amicably and as soon as you can. Please give us an update after you leave :)

  9. SarahJ

    I attended one of these sales-y networking meetings as one of those member guests. I smelled the pressure and am one of the 9 out of 10 who didn’t sign up. I wish the president of the group would take me off his email blasts, but there’s no “unsubscribe” link, and I’m not looking forward to the inevitable “how can I change your mind” response to a polite unsubscribe request.

    1. Piper

      Not legal! CAN-SPAM laws require that they give you an easy method to opt out (like a link). E-mailing them to tell them you want to unsubscribe does not fall under this “easy method.”

      1. kristinyc

        Click “report spam.” That’ll at least get his emails in your spam folder (and depending on how he’s sending them, could also hurt his deliverability).

  10. Another Emily

    Maybe they have pushy sales tactics because half their members run multi-level marketing businesses (it seems from your description anyway)? I like Alison’s advice, I’d just cut my losses and run like the wind. (I don’t know how much of your contact information they have, but I’d try to limit what they have as much as possible. I have a feeling they will not stop bothering to rejoin you once you quit.)
    However it seems you have the right attitude to survive and get something good from the experience. Maybe you and the other new people who share your attitude will be able to meaningfully network with each other.

      1. KayDay

        Well, gee, this is the response I get in exchange for brevity?

        Here’s the longer version of the question:
        What is BNI? I haven’t heard of it until now, but a lot of people here seem to have some seeming negative opinions about it. There doesn’t seem to be much neutral information out on the internet–from looking at the first two pages of google results, it looks like they have done a really good job of sanitizing their online presence. Is it legit? Is it a scam? My five second google search only turned up local chapter pages, and when i searched for “is BNI a scam” I found out that it’s either “the greatest business opportunity ever” or “a cult.” So what exactly is it? Is it a completely legitimate organization or a Mary-kay-like thing, or a complete scam?

        1. AG

          BNI is a “networking club.” It’s not a “scam” or a “cult” necessarily…Basically you meet (for breakfast, at least the one I went to) regularly with a group of people and get to know them so that you can “develop relationships” aka sell them stuff. In theory “networking” is good, but when I went it seemed so forced. Also I was really turned off by the fact that I was “invited” by someone to one of their open (recruitment) meetings, but when I showed up I had to pay $15 for my breakfast – the $ wasn’t the problem (I expensed it at work) but I thought it was kinda weird.

          1. The IT Manager

            Like KayDay, I googled and didn’t get any clear info. And now I think I see the problem. Networking does not equal selling people stuff (at least not in my mind), so BNI is not really a networking club. I’m not in sales and I’m not a buyer for my organization so I would not be a fruitful target for a sales club like this. Honestly it sounds horrible so I now know if I am ever approached to run, run like the wind.

            1. Jamie

              I second the confusion and the horribleness of the concept – at least to me.

              Networking, for me, is an organic thing which arises from mutual contacts, professional interests, whatever.

              Then again, I’m not very good at it since it involves talking to people, so I may not be the standard bearer for wisdom on this topic.

              This just sounds so forced and I would think a lot of people would find that off putting.

            2. Soni

              No, BNI is not a networking club. It’s more like a referral club, and it works quite well for some people (and, as noted, not so well for others). Not a scam by any means, but it is a system that you want to be sure of what you’re getting into (and that it meets/will meet your needs) before you buy in.

      2. Another Jamie

        Haha, I just emerged from an entertaining rabbit hole reading people’s rants about BNI, based on googling “What is BNI?” Well, I had to google “BNI scam” to get to the good stuff. “What is BNI” brings up a page of links all from BNI’s own websites, which is usually kind of fishy.

  11. Rigo

    I spent the first part of my career in NYC, and I never noticed this type of Amway-style networking. Then I moved to a smaller city and practically every professional my age that I know is in a BNI group or some other similar thing. The whole thing revolts me but they all take it so seriously that I feel petty and arrogant when I think about how stupid it seems.

  12. Meg Murry

    OP, it sounds like you made a couple of good contacts from the group – can you just arrange to have lunch with those people and skip the main group? Maybe start your own networking group for people looking for your type of business and skip the “official” group – just start a standing monthly happy hour or lunch? No pressure tactics, just a chance to get lunch with people who’s services are compatible with yours – for instance, if you are an accountant, it makes sense to meet up with lawyers, CPAs, insurance salespeople, etc but not so much people that sell candles, handbags and kitchenware.

    Also, for better networking groups – try looking for a group with a purpose BESIDES just networking. For instance, in my small town most of the small business owners (brick & mortar small business, not direct home sale small business), doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial planners, etc are in the Rotary Club. In other towns in our area, Kiwanis and Lions are also popular – they typically have 1 lunch meeting a month. These organizations are community serviced based, so they exist for a reason beyond just networking – you might have to do a little bit more to be part of the group than just go to lunch, but it would probably yield more geniune contacts that you would actually get to personally know. Another option is your local Chamber of Commerce – again, often monthly lunch or breakfast meetings, plus committee meetings if you get involved in a project.

  13. Robert

    I sent in five requests for my Gas Vouchers and they sent me ten dollars instead of the fifty. Do you really think I should send them money for a discounted plane fare. Think I’ll just take it as a lesson if it sounds to good it probable is. Stay Away!!!!!!!!!

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