Value Galore Found in Chamber Memberships

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Some years ago I joined a chamber of commerce with the goal of rubbing shoulders with powerful corporate decision-makers and establishing my consulting value, soaking up many new clients in the process like warm gravy at Thanksgiving dinner. The morning I headed out for my first chamber breakfast, however, my business partner called me to report that our bank had just canceled all its merchant credit card accounts following a decision to get out of that business. At that time, I was running a seminar business which heavily depended upon credit card sales. Suddenly I had lost a very lucrative conduit of revenue.

Literally minutes later, stunned and feverishly ruminating about what we would do to prevent a potential catastrophe, I sat tolerating my new chamber’s “member spotlights. ” Reps from member businesses stood up for a quick minute or two, described their companies and the services they offered to their fellow members. One local bank concluded its service litany with a folksy, “So come down and see us sometime. We love doing business with our fellow chamber members. ”

The chamber’s director then exhorted everyone that “It’s good to do business with other members. ” Suddenly I realized this new “family” I’d joined might be the answer to my current problem (and prayers). At the break, I approached the bank rep, explained my situation, got an encouraging response, and found myself at the end of a meeting with this rep that very same day with a new merchant account squarely in place, all courtesy of the fast action of this new chamber friend. Though I had come in looking to FIND business, I’d come out in total awe of something better: the huge value offered by chambers in terms of providing resources that their member companies sincerely need. I had become someone else’s new customer but was very happy about it.

Over the ensuing four years, though I did pick up a few clients here and there, I never forgot the lesson: that access to a ready, willing-to-help business family afforded me a greater value than I could have every predicted. Joseph J. Bevilacqua, President/CEO of the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce (Lawrence MA), explains it this way: “Chambers are indeed a great way for companies to find other companies to BUY FROM. They can help you locate all sorts of ordinary needs, like paper supplies, restaurants, hotels for visiting customers. That's a key point of how a chamber works: it’s essentially a B2B network. ”

Chamber devotees also say that entrepreneurs and executives can benefit from meeting the many buyers and users of you’re their products/services that compose the typical chamber, based on its typical audience of peers outside each individual member’s own industry. This broadens both horizons and connections. Hearing high-powered guest speakers, for example, affords the opportunity to meet not only that speaker but lots of other top execs who come to hear the speaker as well.

Other benefits? Try this list: health care insurance, auto insurance discounts, discounts on a variety of many other goods and services. A chamber member once told me, “It’s an attractive arena for doing interesting volunteer work as well. ”

So with all this good stuff, could there be any downside?

Chamber people do agree on one pitfall: if you lack the willingness to show up, it’s not for you. “Joining a chamber could be a waste of time if you're not able to put some effort into it, ” admits Andrew Olmsted, Managing Director, Cambridge Innovation Partners, and a Cambridge Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce member. “One needs to evaluate whether the benefit will be worth the effort. But that's of course what you must do with any business activity!”

Others echo like sentiments, remarking that chamber members reap only what they sow. Socializing, networking and rolling up one’s sleeves to get vigorously involved are requisites. “Don't expect to walk out of your first meeting more contacts and new customers than you know what to do with, ” warns Cambridge (MA) Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Lucey. “It's like a health club in that way: Joining doesn't do anything, you have to also do the work. ”

Beyond that chamber folks insist benefits far outweigh everything else, especially with chambers gearing themselves intently to our high tech times. “Lots of people still think chambers function like a 1950s ‘downtown organization’ but that’s no longer true, ” explains Joe Bevilacqua. “Now we’re fast-moving, technology-driven, growing, inclusive, results-driven, accountable, and oriented to action. ”

Ken Lizotte CMC is Chief Imaginative Officer (CIO) of emerson consulting group inc. (Concord, MA), which transforms consultants, law firms, executives and companies into “thoughtleaders. ” This article is an excerpt from his newest book “Beyond Reason: Questioning Assumptions of Everyday Life".

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