Gentle friends, we have spent a great deal of time over the years discussing the generally terrible way we approach almost everything to do with our customers. From the Customer Abuse departments to the save gates to Being Creepy to the ineffective measurement of misery, we have generally come up lacking, both on the B2B and B2C sides. We just aren’t good at it.

Today I want to discuss a quiet backwater: The Flock of the Gruntled, also known as the customer reference pool.

If you are a B2B company of any size, you have at least one of these programs. They are called cheerful things like The You need a new roofPresident’s Club or Our Champions. This is the pool of customers to which you return every time a Sales Squirrel needs a reference, every time a P-Cuber needs to check off that they have checked up, every time the media call looking for someone who will support the drivel in your latest product announcement. You call them references; I call them a giant waste of time.

The average B2B organization spends $250,000 on their retention program each year. Many go north of $1-million.*

You carefully identify anyone who isn’t threatening a lawsuit, you approach them on tiptoe, lest you spook them into Porcupine territory, you speak in soothing tones of gentle meadows, and then quietly admit them to your Flock of the Gruntled (as opposed to the Throng of the Disgruntled).

There they stay, in their quiet little pasture, hauled out now and again to bleat out a testimonial or fill in a form. In return you hand out discounts, freebies, hotel upgrades and ugly lucite things.

Yet sales is never quite satisfied, is it? They need a reference in the resin lawn ornament manufacturing business. No, general manufacturing won’t do. Neither will that customer who makes ceramic lawn elves, nor the one who does life-sized resin depictions of Austro-Hungarian despots. Gotta be resin lawn ornaments or they can’t possibly close the deal.

Perhaps they need a reference located in Montana. Not Idaho, not Alberta; has to be Montana. How could a credible reference possibly come from outside of Montana? Or they need a testimonial from a left-handed Capricorn who likes licorice. Face it, your flock will never quite cut it.

And yet marketing and customer abuse keep tending their little flock, panicking when the Squirrels aren’t getting just what they want and generally wasting everybody’s time and money.

Here’s the thing: The P-Cube guy is fairly certain the three references he needs to list on his Procurement Party Invitation form will be saying nice things. He is certainly hoping they say nice things or his day will get a lot weirder.

The prospect who has asked to speak to a real user is similarly not stupid enough to suppose that you are going to put a Detractor on the other end of the phone. If they are really thinking it through, they ought to inquire whether you are a blood relative of the person on the phone.

This little flock of yours is all show and no wool and everyone knows it, including, I hope, you.

The reality is, customers are working their networks to check up on you. They are sending emails to buddies, they are asking about you in LinkedIn groups, they are seeing what the buzz is at industry events. They’re looking you up on Google, Glassdoor and industry sites. That P-Cuber is filling in his form and diving right into SEDAR, Hoovers, EDGAR or LexisNexis to do some proper digging and cover his arse when it comes time to make a recommendation.

Consumers are chatting at book club, or asking their neighbours for recommendations and then they’re consulting Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, Jane’s list and the Blognogracy. All of your prospects are seeing the press releases, the regrettable news stories, the class action suits, the recalls and, yes, the propaganda you’re cranking out to counter it all.

Given this direct access to your customer base, I think it makes more sense to take that money you’re spending on your little flock and invest it in something that will drive better conversations in the real world.

Maybe throw a few bucks at building a great product people want to endorse, or fixing your terrible billing system so your service team can deal with real problems, or training your CSRs to be more polite than your competition’s CSRs. These are the things people talk about and these are what get you the business.

As you start looking at your 2016 budgets, I suggest you pay particular attention to your customer reference program and make sure it’s doing more than keeping the lawn fertilized.

* Source: Forrester