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.)

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