How to Get the Most Out of Your Chamber of Commerce

Are you getting everything you want from your business - except enough profit? You may not know it, but you are probably not far from an untapped gold mine.

Surprise: It's called your chamber of commerce. You may think of this organization as just a stuffy referral service; you pay your annual dues grudgingly, but think you're giving more than you're getting from your membership. You may be right - unless you know how to use it.

According to chamber executives from around the country, networking is the number-one tactic for increasing revenues. "Chambers offer many opportunities to meet other people," says Mary Bontrager, senior vice president of organizational development at the Greater Des Moines (Iowa) Chamber of Commerce Federation. "You have to take advantage of as many networking opportunities as you can."

Even though some businesses have been known to build huge customer lists from contacts made at chamber events, simply attending a chamber's breakfasts or luncheons - and assuming networking opportunities will be served to you on a platter - doesn't work.

"If you wait for business to come to you, you are going to stay hungry," says Loren Mitchell, president of the chamber of commerce in Spokane, Wash. "You have to do some work. That means actively reaching out and forging relationships with other chamber members."

Here are the best ways to do just that:

JOIN A COMMITTEE.
Any kind of committee membership will help you increase your contacts, but to meet the greatest number of high-profile business owners, target the Program Committee or Speakers and Awards Committee.

"Members of a committee develop strong business referral services among themselves," says Nancy Ploeger, executive director of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce in New York City. "The committee becomes a little exclusive club."

But does participating in committees take lots of time. Not necessarily, according to Ploeger. "Most committees meet once a month," she says. "Sometimes, if it is a small enough committee, members do their work via a conference call. So all in all, you are talking perhaps two hours every few weeks."

MUNCH YOUR WAY TO MONEY.
Bagels and bucks: The chamber breakfast is a great place to network with other members. When attending chamber breakfasts, go out of your way to meet new people. Human nature makes people clump together in familiar groups. You have to break that habit to network. "Many people come to the breakfasts and pass out their business cards, but then make a key mistake: They sit down at a table with the same people every time," says Mitchell. "Do they enlarge their circle of business acquaintances. Not one bit." Much better, he says, is to sit at a different table every time. "When you walk into the room, look around and ask yourself: Okay, where is a table where I do not know anyone." Mitchell says. "Then make a beeline for it."

ATTEND NEW MEMBER RECEPTIONS.
Most chambers hold a new-member reception every three or four months. Attend even if you are a veteran chamber participant, since the participants will tend to represent young businesses that are growing quickly and in need of ideas and resources.

Mitchell says Spokane's new-member receptions typically attract 30 or 40 new members. These are the types of people to whom you should talk about, say, club membership discounts for their entire workforce. If you have such a program in place and have printed materials describing the program's particulars, be sure to hand these out to every new member who attends the chamber event, and post them on the chamber's bulletin board, as well.

CALL AND WELCOME NEW MEMBERS.
Not all new members attend the receptions given in their honor. And even if they did, you wouldn't have time to speak with everyone. What's more, new members join every month, so you can lose opportunities if you wait until the reception.

"We suggest that old members call new members," says Bill Burns, senior vice president of marketing at the Greater Columbus (Ohio) Chamber of Commerce. To avoid the appearance of making a blatant telephone sales call, Burns suggests a softer approach: "Hi, my name is blank. I'm a fellow chamber member, and I'm calling to introduce myself and to find out more about your business so that maybe we can help each other."

TOOT YOUR OWN HORN.
Most chambers have some form of "toot your own horn" event where you are invited to describe your business to everyone else in the room. "They are very popular," says Ploeger. "At ours, we use an egg timer to keep speakers down to a two-minute speech."

You don't have to give a stuffy presentation. "We get a wide variety of exhibits," she says. "One individual got a guitar and sang a song about his business because he wanted to stand out. Be creative and clever."

MAKE SURE THE CHAMBER OFFICE HAS YOUR INFORMATION ON FILE.
Chambers of commerce are not agents for their members. Nor do they recommend individual members for business transactions. That said, it's also true that chambers respond to questions from people in the community by giving them lists of chamber members. Since you want to make sure that you are on the short list of names passed along to inquirers, forward the chamber a brochure every time it is updated. Also, make sure you are listed on the chamber's Web site, and exchange links if you maintain your own site.

"We may have up to 40,000 requests in a year for information and referrals," says Bontrager. "Outsiders want to know who in the community provides this or that service. We keep files on members, so let your chamber know what you do and what is unique."

JOIN THE ROUNDTABLE.
Many chambers set up business roundtables composed of members in non-competing fields. "Our typical roundtable has about 25 members," says Timothy Sheehy, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. "They develop business for each other through referrals. We measure the success of the program based on the leads that people generate from one another."

USE YOUR CHAMBER TO HELP YOU FIND EMPLOYEES.
In response to a tighter job market, chambers of commerce are launching new programs to match available positions with people seeking work.

"People from out of town or out of state who are looking for work often send us their resumes," says Bontrager. "We enter them on a fax-on-demand system. Every 30 days, we update the lists for members to access."

At the New Paltz (N.Y.) Chamber of Commerce, a representative of the state Department of Labor visits weekly to help job seekers find positions. "It's difficult for employers to find the time to screen qualified applicants," says Executive Director Joyce Minard. "We take the bite out of the process."

While you're looking at what your chamber can do for you, don't forget that you can join more than one. Look at opportunities in adjoining towns, particularly if your club draws members from more than one town. "If you do business in a community, then you can get involved in its chamber," notes Minard.

Just remember that you have to get involved if you expect to benefit from membership. "So many people join chambers with the best of intentions," Minard says. "Then they don't participate. They wait for business to come to them. You'll get more from your chamber just by becoming acquainted with other chamber members."

Make your chamber membership pay off with more than a wallet card and a wall plaque. Network with enthusiasm, and you'll mine some real gold to fortify your bottom line.