Reference Checks – Why Bother?

Reference checks are time consuming and a pain to do which is why sales managers fail to do this critical part of the process of hiring salespeople. As you will see, leaving reference checking to the HR department is a poor idea. The “it take’s one to know one” factor quickly comes into play when a sales manager asks another sales manager for a reference. Here’s a few tips that might help.

No References? Beware!

Although most companies, for some inexplicable reason, don’t check references, you should still ask for them. Not being able to get references can tell you volumes about the candidate.

Whenever a candidate can’t provide current references because “the person left the company and I don’t know where he went”, or for a multitude of other seemingly reasonable reasons, beware. Sometimes it’s not because they CAN’T provide references, it’s because they DON’T want to. Sometimes the candidate doesn’t have any good references, or maybe he’s afraid of what the references might say.

When you can’t get references, this should raise a red flag in your mind and you should drop the candidate to the bottom of the eligibility list, if not off the list altogether.

Smart employers not only ask for permission to call the candidate’s former bosses or supervisors, but they also follow through and make those calls.

Do Your Own Reference Checks

I know it takes a lot of time to do reference checks, time that you don’t really have. But DON’T succumb to the temptation of delegating this important aspect of the hiring process to the Human Resources department.

It’s not that HR professionals can’t do a good job. It’s just that, when dealing with salespeople, beyond checking dates of employment, etc., they don’t always know what to ask about, or how to interpret the responses.

Important information can be lost in translation when someone else does your reference checks for you. No one knows, better than you, what to look for in the answers (or non-answers) that you get because you know exactly how the answers relate to the role.

Get the HR people involved in helping you develop a reference call checklist that you can use. Just make sure that you add the sales performance and attitude questions that you also want the answers for.

Talk to 3 or More References

Some people quit after doing one or, at the most, two reference checks. Not good!

Only checking one reference is like only having one clock to use to determine the exact time. It might be right, or it might be wrong. Two clocks (or references) may cancel each other out or be too similar. Three clocks (or references) are more likely to get you closer to the truth.

Asking a candidate to provide you with references is like asking the fox what time they’d like to start guarding the henhouse. Any answer is a bad one. Why? Because, unless they have a career death wish, they’re only going to provide the names of people who are prepared to give absolutely incredible references.

Rather than ask the candidate to give you three references, ask him for permission to contact former bosses or supervisors and then get those names. If he can’t, or is hesitant to give you any names, beware. The candidate may ask for time to do so. I prefer to not give them time to contact the people as I’m looking for candid and spontaneous responses to my reference-checking questions and I’d rather they not be forewarned that I’m going to call.

Prime the Referee When Doing Reference Checking

I’m usually not a big fan of asking leading questions, but when I’m doing reference checks for sales candidates, I’m all for priming the referee before asking for a reference. Why? Because it helps avoid getting those sometimes ill-deserved, glowing reports during your reference-checking process.

By telling the referee in advance the concerns that you might have about the salesperson, you’re priming the person to be truthful with you about information that might impact the candidate’s ability to do the job.

For example, telling the referee that you have a concern that Mr. Candidate may be over-social and might waste time chatting often gets the person to admit to a trait that he might not have otherwise mentioned.

Remember, the main purpose for checking references is not necessarily to get a glowing report but to find out potential problem areas and management challenges. You want to ensure that you’re hiring a possible performer, not a problem. A glowing report is a bonus.

Check Out Sales Candidates on the Web

In addition to reference checks, here is another tip to help avoid hiring a problem child (salesperson).

When hiring salespeople many employers have not caught on to the fact that the Internet is an excellent hiring tool. It’s not just for finding candidates, it’s also great for finding out about candidates.

It’s amazing what you can find out about people on the Internet through things they either posted themselves, or that have been posted by others. For some inexplicable reason, people seem to think things posted on their personal blog stay there and are only read by a few personal friends. They seem oblivious to the fact that search engines catalogue these ramblings as though they were profound documents.

It pays to run a person’s name through one or more of the popular search engines to see what pops up. According to BusinessWeek and U.S. News & World Report, 35% of executive recruiters who use the Internet to check out prospects have eliminated candidates based on what they found online.

Most sales candidates fully expect that recruiters will look them up online but most of them have never conducted a web search on themselves. That may explain the continuing presence of photos showing someone holding a bottle of beer in each hand while balancing another on their head. And that’s my next hire? Don’t think so!

While you’re at it, you may want to check out your own organization on the Web to see what’s being said about you.

Hopefully, you won’t find pictures of yourself with beer bottles.