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The 7 Do’s and Don’t of Sales Reference Checks

The 7 Do’s and Don’t of Sales Reference Checks

alt imageI love sales reference checks. There’s a line you won’t hear very often, but it’s true. References are my favorite part of an interview process. It’s the social proof to back up what you’ve (hopefully) been able to learn throughout the interview process for a sales candidate. There are plenty of great reference question templates out there, but we believe that sales reference checks need to be more than a checkbox during the interview process, so we’ve outlined a few of our favorite Do’s and Don’ts of sales reference checks below.

1. DO use references to understand what motivates this person. Do they love SPIFFs? Are they more incentivized by helping the team hit a goal or do they go totally heads down at the EOQ to make sure they hit their own number? Maybe they’re less motivated by money and more motivated by words of affirmation. Whatever it is, you need a basic understanding of this before a hire is made so you can determine if this will be the right environment to feed that fire. Take this a step further and you’re also getting real time tips on how to close this candidate. They love to mentor younger sellers but that didn’t come up in the interview process yet? Great! When you get to offer stage, talk about the internal mentorship program the company is building or the relationship AEs have with the SDR team.

2. DO ask for situational examples to back up claims. “Jenny mentioned that she built the relationship with X company from scratch. Can you talk to me about how she did that?” If you’ve done your job as a hiring manager through the process, there are probably a few key things that really stood out to you that made you like this person for the role. Ask about them! You’ll learn that they either did exactly what they claimed to do, in some cases they did even more (which is great!) and sometimes, you’ll find that they exaggerated and a lot of their success was more tied to being in the right place at the right time.

3. DO ask, “What else?” or “Can you tell me more about that?”. These are my two favorite recruiting 101 questions in general. Whenever someone makes any kind of assertion throughout the interview process or during references, I like to ask at least one of these questions. More often than not, folks will continue elaborating on a situation or story and you’ll be able to understand things at an even deeper level.

4. DO dig into areas for growth. No one is perfect and it’s important to understand a new hire’s strengths and weaknesses before making an offer. Are you the right manager to help them get better at the things that they need to improve upon, or will this be an environment where those weaknesses will be things that derail the company? Asking about “areas for growth” is my approach for understanding ways they can improve. Do they bring up something that raises another concern? Go back to the point above and ask them to tell you more.

5. DON’T waste this person’s time. Be efficient with a reference’s time. Introduce yourself and explain how you’re connected to the search– will you be this person’s direct manager or are you the Head of Talent?– then jump in. The reference will likely already have some context from the candidate, and they’re always welcome to ask you more questions, but out of respect to their time, spend the call actually asking questions rather than going through a full pitch on the company, the role, etc.

6. DON’T take a reference call on the run. I’ve learned this the hard way many times over. At the risk of getting references done quickly, it’s very tempting to take a reference call walking to a meeting or in the car on your commute home. But references are an important part of the interview process and should be treated as such. Focus on the conversation and take notes! You’ll likely need to upload these notes into your ATS to share with your interview committee, so make sure they’re thorough. It’s also worth noting that sales candidates don’t start their new role for at least 3 weeks, so these are notes that you’ll want to come back to before they start so you can refresh your memory on key things to focus on during onboarding.

7. DON’T tell them that you’re going to make an offer. Reference checks should be the last step of the interview process. The key word there is “step”. References are still part of the interview process. If you approach references as a box to check and you’ve already made up your mind that you’re going to hire this person, then you’re likely not going to be asking the right questions or truly listening and digging in on what these people are telling you. To that end, don’t promise a reference that you’re going to make an offer to this candidate or tell them it’s a done deal. Sure, there are times when an offer has already been made “pending references” but even then, a poor reference can end the process all together. Assume that references will tell the candidate what you talk about, so be sure not to overpromise and commit to an offer before every step is complete.

By nature, sales reference checks should weed out the folks who are not right for your organization, but when done correctly, they become a vital tool in understanding how to better manage, incentivize, motivate and even close candidates.

If you liked “The 7 Do’s and Don’t of Sales Reference Checks” and want to read more content from the Bowery Capital Team, check out other relevant posts from the Bowery Capital Blog.

Alex Adamson
Alex Adamson
Alexandra is the Director of Talent at Bowery Capital based in New York. She works with the firm's entrepreneurs on their human capital strategies including recruiting, interviewing, compensation planning, sales management, and onboarding. Prior to joining Bowery Capital, Alexandra was the Director of Account Management at Betts Recruiting in San Francisco. She worked closely with founders of high growth software companies including Everstring, Rubrik, Intercom, Apptimize, Zenefits, and Tintri to build out their human capital efforts focused on early revenue generation. Alexandra holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature from The University of Michigan.