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Referral Groups Prefer Real Talk to High-Tech


Despite the growing use of high-tech modes of communication, more and more private business people are promoting their operations through a back-to-basic technique--word of mouth.

So says James Nicholl, an Oxnard-based agent for the New York Life Insurance Co., who is the assistant regional director of Business Network Intl.

The networking and referral organization, which includes among its membership owners of a wide variety of businesses, has four chapters serving Ventura County and another half dozen or so on the way by the end of the year.

Nicholl said Business Network and groups like it--such as the Leads Club and the Ventura County Professional Women's Network--are gaining in popularity as a result of changes in the work force and in the economy.

"Professionals see the need for word of mouth, and that type of advertising is the most effective," Nicholl said. "Cost of advertising is one reason. And a lot of people are getting out of corporate America. It's amazing how many thousands and thousands of people are getting into their own enterprise."

The San Dimas-based organization, established in 1985, has 675 chapters throughout the United States, in the United Kingdom and in Canada. Locally, it has two chapters based in Ventura, and one each representing Thousand Oaks and the Conejo Valley.

Officials are looking for members for an Oxnard-area chapter scheduled to be up and running by early June, and Nicholl said there are plans to resurrect a Simi Valley-Moorpark group.

Business Network groups are made up of about 30 members, each representing a different profession. Only one member is accepted from any one industry.

Members, selected through a screening process, represent a host of fields, including bookkeeping, auto repair, catering and chiropractic services. The members meet weekly to network among themselves and to refer outside customers to one another. They also have access to workshops on networking techniques.

"We have people from Merrill Lynch, lots of bigger business, but also smaller medium-sized storefront businesses and others just starting out, like home-based businesses," said Virginia Devine, an executive director of Business Network Intl.

"Really anybody who gets business through referrals is eligible--now we're getting medical doctors who because of the HMOs need more business," she said. "Word of mouth has been around forever, but it's now becoming the foremost way of getting business."

The Leads Club, another networking organization with seven Ventura County chapters, has been around for nearly 20 years. It began as strictly a group for businesswomen but now is open to men.

Shirley Ash, a chapter coordinator for the club, said it is predominantly aimed at owners of small- to medium-sized operations, particularly those who are home-based.

"A lot of people who run a business from their homes are in an isolated situation," she said. "Participating in a networking group gives them an opportunity to meet other business people, it gives them contacts, it helps them develop a referral system and it expands their client base."

The Calabasas-based group has 300 member clubs throughout the U.S. and in Australia. Initial registration is $75, with a second-year registration of $30. Monthly dues are $25.

Ash said mortgage brokers, Realtors, dentists, advertising specialists, architects, bankers, computer consultants and accountants are among those most commonly represented among the group's membership.

"It works well for certain types of businesses and certain industries," Ash said.

"Times are difficult, business is difficult and people are always looking for ways of advertising and exposing their businesses. As business slows down, people do this more."

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