Starting and Running a Chamber Referral Group Like a Pro

Christina Metcalf
Christina Metcalf
Published on 08/14/2023

This is the final installment of the 3-part interview with Beth Bridges Brandle, Networking Motivator. In the first part we covered How Networking Groups Are One of a Chamber’s Strongest Retention Tools . The second blog covered Tips for Running a Successful Referral Group and our final post with Beth covers the intricacies and challenges of starting and running a chamber referral group.

Starting and Running a Chamber Referral Group Like a Pro

A referral group is one of the easiest ways to show return on investment for members. But it takes more than just creating one to yield solid results. In this final interview with Beth Bridges Brandle we talked to the Networking Motivator about best practices in referral group creation and management.

Should you charge for referral group membership or is it included in chamber membership?

Beth: I've seen it as part of the membership and I've seen where it was an additional fee, an add-on. Referral membership is a brilliant addition for the tiered membership. You can have a base model tier (of membership), but then the next tier up offers referral group membership. That's a good upsell to a higher tier for many members.

It depends on the size of your chamber. It depends on how you've trained your members to look at fees. If it's an “all you can eat” model or if it's an “add on” model or if it's tiered model, you just have to look at it fitting into that. All those can work based on how your revenue model is set up.

Who leads the referral group?

Beth: With any kind of group, you must have a few people who are willing to take on a leadership role and provide the enthusiasm. You cannot do it with just one person doing all the work.

You need at least 2-3 people who are in either a leadership role; people who are willing to show up every time and get the meeting started. (Chamber) Staff shouldn't be doing that. I went to all our referral groups. At one point, we had three.

Why would you want to attend all those group meetings?

Beth: The chamber is a good potential recipient of leads. Attendance is a challenge though. Ideally with the leads group, you'll only have one person per industry. You'll fill up your first group with real estate, like a mortgage lender, title company, insurance agent. And then the other people will be clamoring for a second group and then a third group. If your groups meet once a week or every other week now you've added 6 to 12 meetings per month for your staff person.

I measured the success of mine by the fact that the people in the referral group tended to be advocates for the chamber. It was an easy referral for them to give and it generated leads. If you're fortunate enough to have a salesperson or membership person, they may volunteer. If you don't have a referral group, they may leap at the chance to run it because it's an especially great sales opportunity. Normally you'd pay $500 a year to belong to one. In the chamber it's included or it's just one tier up or an extra $100 a year. It's a selling point to new members, but also a great way to get more referrals.

What if there’s no room in your referral group?

Beth: That can be a sore point with somebody. I joined the chamber so I could be part of this referral group and there's not a space for me.

So, you start a waiting list. If it's a real estate agent (who wants to be a part of the filled group), for example, they're some of the best networkers out there. They build their reputation on familiarity, on people getting to know them, and word of mouth. If you have one who is a real go getter, tell them, if you can gather up six people who want to be part of your referral group, whether they're chamber members or they'd become chamber members, we will start one. Let them be the person providing the enthusiasm and the momentum. If they're a go getter, that's to their advantage.

Advice for Chamber Pros on Revamping/Re-energize or Starting a Group

So how do you know if starting a referral group is a good idea for your chamber?

Beth: If you're starting from scratch, it's easy. Follow these steps:

  1. Make sure people are asking for it.
  2. Make an announcement that you’re going to build one. Ensure the announcement goes to everyone at the same time. Whomever can commit the first, gets in. I would announce, “We will build 1-3 new groups, depending on interest.”
  3. Do a big kick off. Talk about the benefits and have people talk about their businesses. Tell success stories. We had a Mary Kay lady who came into the referral group. She was new and she came in and she said, a good referral lead for me is anybody who has skin. We challenged her on that. Over several weeks we got her down to her target market. It was women in their mid-thirties who were just starting to see those signs of aging. It was about a year, year and a half and she was driving a pink Cadillac. She took off. Now, she was good. It wasn't just the referral group. Find somebody like that who has a success story and have them tell their story to kick it off.

Understand you're going have a lot of turnover at first. You'll have people come in and after two weeks are like, I haven't sold any houses yet or I haven't gotten any leads yet. I haven't made any new customers. You’ll have the ones who come in and do a one-on-one with everybody in the group, giving their sales pitch, and then they're out. Plan for that. You're going to have turnover.

And you don’t have to be a huge chamber for multiple groups. We had three, fully stocked referral groups going for quite some time in a chamber of under 1000 members.

Should you limit membership in any way as far as tenure?

Beth: As long as the member is finding value and meeting the expectations set forward, no. There’s no tenure or expiration.

One of the things we did though was that if you didn't show up for a certain number of meetings, we sent you an email or a letter and said, Hey, it looks like this is not working. Whether it's schedule wise or interest wise, we're going to open your seat to somebody else.

That's important because if you have a real estate agent who's not showing up anymore, and you have two or three who are hot to take that seat, you should have some clear rules on either performance or attendance.

Solving the Junk Leads Problem

Beth: In some of these groups you are obligated to give a certain number of leads, which is good and bad. It makes you go out and get leads. But then people come in with junk. One of the things we did was if you had a one-on-one with someone that counted as a lead. So, if you and I were in the group and then we said, let's have coffee or let's do a zoom and get to know each other better, that counted as a lead. This helps people not come empty handed to the meeting. People who come empty handed after a while are going to slink away because they're (feeling like they’re) not contributing.

For most people, meetings give them something to feel better about. This is the clever, tricky part of it. A lot of times they found out they did have someone they could refer, or they found out something more than they would have in the group meeting, which made it easier or better for them to give a referral. Counting a one-on-one meeting as a “lead” should always be part of your referral group because it leads to leads.

The One Thing About Networking Events and Referral Groups That Result in Member Retention or Success That People Don’t Think About

Beth: It’s two things. But they're opposite sides of the same coin. It's tracking results and sharing success stories.

Tracking results, meaning being able to see something like “this group in the last six months has passed over 300 leads.” Then people know this is an active group full of people who are doing things. Some groups don’t let you see this information, but you should. You want members saying, “I did a deal from a referral that Joanne gave me, and it was a $10,000 deal.” Then people know I can go and have a great time. I can spend time with good people. There's value to that. That is important and that can make the rest of their business life better and make their business more profitable just by being lifted and encouraged.

It's all about the leads so tracking is important. Members will think, If I don't get more business from it, what am I doing here? People are funny because they'll tell you, I haven't gotten anything out of this leads club. That’s when you can look at data and you can see they really received 17 leads in the last three months. It is vital to keep track of the successes that happen and to reinforce that within the group.

Everybody has a success story. Share them. Do that internally in the group and then take those stories and put them on social media, on your website, in your marketing materials, all the places you tell stories about the chamber. Your social media is a great place to do it. Your website, if you've got a landing page on your site with details about the leads club, your membership materials. Quantify results. Share things like “Members of our X, Y, Z leads club have shared over $3 million in deals with each other in the last six months first.”

Chambers of commerce should not give up the opportunity to provide this to their members if they have the bandwidth. As I already said it benefits your chamber staff to be in the group. It may be one of those things that feels like a lot of work but has a good return on investment.

About Beth: Beth Bridges is the Networking Motivator™ and author of "Networking on Purpose: A Five-Part Success Plan to Build a Profitable and Powerful Business Network." She was a former chamber of commerce marketing and membership executive and attended over 2,500 networking events in 10 years. Beth is available as a business speaker, networking trainer and presenter for chambers of commerce, associations and sales and marketing organizations.

About the author

Christina Metcalf

Christina Metcalf is a writer who loves stories and specializes in assisting small businesses and chambers of commerce to tell theirs.


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