How to do a Real Reference Check and What Most Sales Leaders DON’T Do

There is nothing more important than hiring the best people. Wrong hires are VERY costly. In spite of the importance of getting the right players on board and making good hiring decisions, 50% of all hires don’t work out.  In baseball batting .500 is impossible, in hiring it’s less than optimal.  To beat the odds requires a solid, progressive, intensive hiring process and part of that process means doing “real” reference checks.

What’s a “real” reference check?

A real reference check is when you do it yourself!  As the CSO, EVP, VP, Sales, it’s your job to build the best team possible and that can’t be done by outsourcing your reference checks to HR. HR has NO idea what it’s going to take to be successful in the job. A reference check is not a formality, it’s a critical part of the team building process.

If you’re like most heads of sales or sales leaders you don’t do the reference checks for your direct hires. That’s a problem, stop it.

Reference checks are external interviews of the candidate. You’d never consider hiring a candidate without interviewing them yourself, so why aren’t you personally interviewing those who are vouching for them?

Beyond doing reference checks yourself there are some very specific things that make up a good reference check and doing them will increase the chances you get the right people on board.

Describe the job: Describing the position is the most important aspect of a reference check and ironically it’s the thing that is almost NEVER done. Reference checks need to give you more than a description of the candidate and how they’ve done in the past. They need to give you insight into the candidates ability to do the job you are hiring them to do. What good does it do to get a good reference on a candidate if they would suck at the job. Describe the job you are hiring for. Describe what you expect this person to accomplish. Let the reference know how the candidate will be measured and what success looks like. Make sure the reference has a clear understanding of the role. This way they have proper context for their answers.

Ask how the candidate would perform in the position: Be very specific in your questions. After you have provided a full description of the job and what you are looking for this person to do, ask the reference how they think the candidate would perform. Ask them where they think the person would excel and where they might struggle. Ask for examples of where this person has been successful doing similar things before. The key here is to get the reference talking about the candidate in terms of the position and not in general terms.

Ask Why: If the reference didn’t share it when answering how the candidate would perform, ask why they think the person would be successful. Ask why they think she will penetrate the new territory. Ask why they think she will be able to grow the account. Ask why they think he can grow the sales organization from 75 million to 150 million. Ask why they think she can take the company global. The key here is you’re looking for behavioral examples and insight as to whether or not the candidate can get done what you need them to get done.  The reference needs to share why they believe the candidate will be successful in the position.

Get the 411 on the reference: Find out who the reference is. In addition to understanding the relationship between the candidate and the reference, find out more about who you are talking to. Who are they? What is their job? Who do they work for? What are they responsible for in their position? What’s their background? It may feel awkward or uncomfortable to ask a reference about themselves, but it’s critical. This person is vouching for the candidate’s ability to perform a particular job. You need to know how qualified they are to make that assessment. Yes, they are vouching for the person and that is good, but it’s just as important to know if they qualified to judge the candidates ability to perform.

If a candidate has a reference list lacking references qualified to adequately evaluate her performance, that’s a problem. Anyone can create a list of people to say good things about them. As a hiring manager you need more than platitudes. You need honest and open feedback on a candidates ability to get it done.

Ask specific questions about the position:  Ask the reference questions that relate directly to the performance of the job. Go beyond general questions like; what are the candidates strengths, what are their areas of need and would you hire them again? Probe into the role, ask questions like; how well does he or she close? How would you rate their ability to prospect? What do you like best about their selling approach? How does she evaluate people? Can you describe her execution style? How would you describe his leadership ability? These types of questions get to the core of the candidate and give you better visibility into the candidates approach and potential.

Reference checks are vital parts of the hiring process if you do them right. Don’t pass them off to HR. Don’t look at them as another box to check. Use reference checks to uncover things the interview process didn’t pick up. Use them to validate and reinforce what you’ve already learned, good and bad. Use them to prioritize the candidates skills and capabilities.  Reference checks are like glasses. You will see the candidate more clearly, but only if you wear them.

The bottom line, stop screwing around with reference checks. Do em right or don’t do em at all.