Taking Customer Reference Programs from Cost Centers to Value Centers

The Reference Management Elite - Abby Atkinson

Meet Abby Atkinson

Abby Atkinson, Senior Manager of the Customer Reference Program at FireEye, has been managing reference programs as a primary role for more than a decade. “I had been in corporate and field marketing for other high-tech companies when I was first introduced to reference management. Inevitably management would realize the company needed some type of a reference process, so they would throw it over the fence to the marketing team and say, ‘Hey, figure something out.’ But they never put any resources behind it. So it never really went anywhere.”

Not surprisingly, Atkinson went into the role of reference management with a fair amount of trepidation, not sure she wanted to take on this kind of job if companies weren’t going to put their money where their mouth was. What was the key deciding factor that changed her mind? “I was really fortunate when I took on the reference management role full time at a new company. They were dedicated to providing the tools and the funding to get the program up and running right the first time,” she says.

That enabled Atkinson to hit the ground running. She established best-practice processes and grew the program to run like a well-oiled machine—while having to consolidate more than twelve different databases. They ended up with over 4,000 viable references and a team of eight full-time staff. When the program needed more funding, Atkinson was able to get an increase of 61% of her budget at a time when other departments were holding steady or even being cut back, a development she characterizes as “a very significant milestone.” How did she do it? “This was all a result of the monthly, quarterly, and annual metrics I was able to share to show bottom-line impact in revenue tied to reference influence and the need for resources to continue to meet the growing demand of requests and reference candidates.” The strategy paid off. “In my opinion, the metrics and the reporting provided the kind of value to get me the funding that I needed, much more than I ever expected,” says Atkinson.

How to Succeed in Reference Management

In Atkinson’s opinion, reference management requires an odd combination of strategic thinking and attention to detail, which are somewhat on opposite sides of the spectrum:

Strategic alignment: Change the perception of your department or program from a “cost center” to a “value center.”

“When you’re just seen as a ‘back office operation,’ then you’re a cost center. You have to change the way everyone views your program [so that they see it] as more of a value center. My job is to balance the tactical aspect of it. That’s my role, and I’ve talked to my CMO about it, and she loves that this is what I live and breathe.” – Abby Atkinson


Balance the needs of two sets of stakeholders: Internal stakeholders include executive management, sales, marketing, product management, services, support, etc.); external stakeholders are customers. They each have different needs and motivations, so managing to the details of those is key.


“Thank you for calling me today, and thank you for being such a strong advocate. We deal with over 30 partnerships and the one we have with FireEye truly stands out above the rest.”


Customer, FireEye

Her Work Life

These days, Abby reports to the Chief Marketing Officer at FireEye. It’s a newer opportunity that she welcomes and wants to see continue. “I’ve been in discussions with my CMO to continue to report directly to her so we can raise the visibility of the program and get much more strategic in leveraging our reference assets.”

“Abby is such a bright spark for this team and has brought an amazing creative energy to all we are doing. I love her spirit and ‘can do’ attitude. She has single-handedly built, shaped, and nurtured the best customer advocacy program I have seen in my entire career. Seriously. I am so impressed with all she has done and especially the relationship she has built with extended members of her team.”

Kara Wilson

SVP and Chief Marketing Officer, FireEye

When asked to describe the best part of her job, Atkinson replied with one word: “Everything! I love the people I work with, and our customers are fantastic. It’s so rewarding to speak with our customers and hear such great praise about our products and services. What really excites me is knowing that what we do as a team and with our customers directly helps the company bring in revenue.”

Atkinson admits her job isn’t without challenges. “The big challenge is that we are in the cyber security space. We are dealing with customers that have been breached before and may have had a lot of negative publicity about a breach, or we have customers that are trying to be proactive and prevent those types of breaches, so no one wants to go public and share the tools that they’re using to protect their data because they don’t want to encourage any further hackers. So getting them to speak about it is very challenging. You have to think outside of the box and come up with creative ways to leverage the customers’ messages, while still honoring their privacy.”

Fun Facts About Abby

  • Her latest craze is jewelry making. “It’s very time consuming, but I consider it to be like therapy. It’s how I relax on the weekends.”
  • She loves to cook. (Like jewelry making, it’s therapeutic, and it’s creative.)
  • Lately she’s been dabbling in watercolor painting. (We’re starting to sense a theme here…)
  • If she was stranded on a desert island and could only listen to one thing (besides the waves) it would be anything from Hall and Oates or Mayer Hawthorne

Some Well-Seasoned Advice

Having spent more than a decade honing her craft, Atkinson is a wealth of information on how to run a world-class program: “Speak to other reference practitioners about their programs and the best practices they use. It’s very important to build your program (and your database) right the first time. It takes a lot of time and effort to change the way you set up your data or change a process. And it’s extremely important to take the time to measure the value of the program as you get it up and running. You need solid metrics to show growth and impact to the bottom line.” Some other tips she has for fellow practitioners in the space:

  • Practice best practices: Look for efficiencies in your processes; streamline responses by creating boilerplate email templates for standard situations; do monthly reports and share with management; send one exciting program tidbit per week to stay at the top of CMO’s mind.
  • Demonstrate strategic importance through metrics. The no. 1 thing an executive wants to know is how you positively impacted the bottom line. Get visibility for your program by providing strong metrics. Success metric = Sales revenue tied to reference influence
  • Learn what the customer wants and what’s important to him/her and the organization. Find ways to leverage reference activities to help them meet their needs (i.e. speaking at industry conference). Make options for program activities completely opt-in or opt-out—don’t require any contract or minimum number of activities.
  • Increase adoption: Ensure you’ve provided training (live, recordings) and marketing material about your program. Promote through internal newsletters each month. Join sales team calls and give a five-minute update. Provide stats on sales winners (presidents club) based on usage of references. Participate in department calls and make suggestions about leveraging references to support each initiative.
Abby Atkinson

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Nichole Auston
Customer Marketing Director at RO Innovation
Nichole Auston is the Customer Marketing Director at RO Innovation. With a background in digital marketing and nearly a decade of experience managing marketing programs for a variety of SaaS companies, she’s passionate about sharing insights, best practices and stories about sales enablement and customer reference management, and the people and technology that power it.