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Hiring A Sales Superstar: Checking References

Our character is an omen of our destiny, the more integrity we have and keep, the simpler and nobler that destiny will be.


Geroge Santayana

It always amazes me to find out how FEW sales managers actually check references. I’m all for trust, but can you really believe everything an interviewee is telling you? What really scares me is that I think it is more about being lazy/busy than trust. I heard a great line the other day, “We never have enough time to do it right, but we always have enough time to go back and fix it.” Let’s start doing it right the first time and eliminating unqualified candidates from ever darkening your office door again.

Step 1
After completing the phone screen and prior to scheduling the 1st in-person interview, let the applicant know you need their references and that they will be checked before the first interview.

Yes, I said checking references should be done BEFORE the 1st in-person interview. Why you ask… Do you want to waste your time in an interview with somebody who doesn’t have good references? I thought so… Also this has 2 additional benefits 1) It scares away anyone who doesn’t have good references and is either going to manufacture them when needed or hope you forget to ask and check. 2) It also tests the preparation of the applicant — letting you know just how proactive this person is. Either benefit really pays for itself in time investment ten fold in return.

Step 2
Making the Calls: There is a definitive art to making reference calls. Most people will only give you perfunctory information out of fear of getting sued. Your job is to relax the person you are talking to and make it a conversation, not an interrogation. People like to give their advice so if you ask questions that put them in the role of advisor and not former employer we are more likely to gather the info we need.

Questions You Should Be Asking In No Particular Order (Remember Conversation Not Interrogation)

  • Could you describe your company’s culture?

  • What makes a great sales rep at your company?

  • What questions do you ask when you are calling about references? (after asking this make sure you follow their suggestions for at least 2 questions befoe you return to your own agenda)

  • How would you compare _____with the best sales people in your company?

  • How did _____function best? Clarify: Was it as member of a team or as a great salesperson?

  • Is ____eligible to be rehired? If not Why?

  • Would you enthusiastically recommend ____?

  • What, if anything, distinguishes _____ from the best salespeople at your company?

  • What do you think we can expect from ____ if she/he works for us?

You’ll rarely get all of the details about a candidate. So before you make the reference call try this tactic. Call their direct line whenever you are sure they won’t be there and leave this message: “____ is applying for a sales position at out firm. Your name has been given to me as a reference. Please call me back if this person was outstanding.” If they do not call back, follow up with an actual reference call during regular hours and ask if they got the message and if there was a reason they did not call you back.

Remember to either record or take detailed notes about the call. You may get a sterling recommendation, but that is not the overall goal of the call. You are determining if this person will be a Sales Superstar. Test what the reference said about the candidate. Incorporate specific questions and simulations, based on a references answers, into your interview process.

You never know what might be the one factoid that trips up a phony. One detail that saves you and your company thousands of dollars, hundreds of manhours and lost customers just because somebody “interviewed well” and you didn’t have time to check their references.

Okay on to the first interview. The next post we will be discussing the setup and how to incorporate what you have learned so far into the questions that are needed to assure you of hiring of a Sales Superstar!