How the Best Sales Leaders do Reference Checks

K, here’s the deal. Reference checks are not a formality. They aren’t a check box on the fast track to getting your next sales person or sales executive through the door. The best sales leaders know this. Killer sales leaders understand the reference check is their secret weapon to ensuring the “A” player they’ve spent the last few weeks with is truly an “A” players. The best sales leaders know that what other people say and “don’t say” about their precious candidate is as valuable as the entire interview process and therefore they build a reference check process that capitalizes on the value of external opinions. Don’t delegate: The first thing the best sales leaders do is they DON’T delegate the reference checks. This is NOT an HR function and they know it. They want to talk to the reference checks themselves. It’s not a formality. They want to hear the inflection, tone, and feedback themselves. The best sales leaders take complete ownership of their reference checks. Describe the job: After engaging a reference, the first thing great sales leaders do is describe the role the candidate is applying for to the reference and what it is they are looking for the candidate to accomplish. This is the most important aspect of a reference check and ironically it’s the thing average sales leaders seldom do. Reference checks need to provide more than a description of the candidate and how they’ve done in the past. They need to provide 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. The reference MUST be linked to the specific job and function your looking for the candidate to do. If not, it’s a useless reference. Take the time to describe the job you are hiring for to the reference. 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 and you get a better reference. 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. The key here is to get the reference talking about the candidate in terms of the position and not in general terms. You want the reference to provide you with as much information as possible into how they believe your candidate will fair in the role you described, based on the goals and objectives they will be expected to meet. Again, context is critical to the reference check and the best sales leaders know this. 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. Taking the reference check at face value when they say; “I think Susie would be a killer outside sales rep and absolutely beat quota.” isn’t enough. Great sales leaders look to understand “why” the reference check believes that and what they are basing their opinion on. They look for solid, defensible positions. 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 are qualified to judge the candidates ability to perform. If you have a CFO vouching for a sales person, that may seem impressive, however what does a CFO know about penetrating accounts, overcoming objections, etc? It’s not to say a good reference check can’t come from someone outside the industry, but the best sales leaders properly catalog the feedback based on the source. 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 from people who know how 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. Don’t stay on the surface and accept  a general reference check. Dig deeper and get to the specifics. Make a list of the 3-5 key tasks the candidate will need to excel at and ask the reference to describe how the candidate does those things. The best sales leaders know that this line of questioning tells them how close the reference is to the candidate and how well they know how the candidate does their job. Killer sales leaders also know that this is a great way to compare what the candidate said about how they do their job with what others say about HOW they do their job. Consistency here is key. Reference checks are no joke and shouldn’t be taken lightly. The best sales leaders know their success or failure goes through their people and hiring the best people possible is their main job. Take the time to do a reference check that matters. Be smart and use them as a tool to make sure you’re getting an “A” player. If you delegate them to H.R. or just see them as check box in the hiring process, then you might as well do not do them at all.  But be prepared, someone maybe looking for an “A” player sales leader and considering you and they just might ask your reference, “Tell me, how  do they hire, do the perform good reference checks?” You know I will!