Go beyond a reference check and conduct a reference interview when sourcing talent.

Sourcing the right talent will make the difference in making your number this year and beyond.  Most sales forces find 20% of the sales team produces 80% of the revenue.  Something is wrong. Sourcing is one piece of the equation that needs to be fixed, and the reference check is a major culprit.  Simply performing references checks is the equivalent of leaving the putt short on the green. Leverage the How to Make Your Number in 2018 Workbook to access a revenue growth methodology to hit your number quarter after quarter, and year after year. 


Reference “checks” are a waste of time. “Checks” usually consist of your HR team calling someone from the candidate’s HR team. Some of the following typically happens:


  • HR calls only the references provided by the candidate
  • They ask informal questions that aren’t tied to the candidate’s interview responses
  • You have to hunt down the references – sometimes at great effort
  • The check lasts 10-15 minutes
  • Results are typically undocumented and do not provide insight – positive or negative


If this describes what you do, stop. You will learn very little. You will check a box and move on.  


The Reference Interview


Contrast this with a reference interview. The reference interview is a focused, 45 minute deep dive discussion. It’s your chance to validate everything you’ve seen and heard throughout the process.


In Talent Selection, you obtained the names of the candidate’s direct supervisors. This now helps you in several ways:


  • ‘A’ players are more willing to disclose their negatives
  • ‘A’ players have no problem connecting you with their former bosses
  • B & C players will opt out once they realize you will contact their former bosses


How do you perform the reference interview? The scheduling task is on the candidate, not you. The candidate sets up the call for you with at least 3 past bosses. He or she also sets expectations with their former bosses about the call.


Your job is to:


  • Ask detailed questions using the Reference Interview Guide
  • Confirm that all of their answers will be held in the strictest of confidence
  • Formally document their answers


The interviews should not be done by HR. You need to own this process.  Yes, the CEO should do reference interviews. Hiring a sales leader is that important.


Below is an example of a reference interview question. This is available in the Reference Interview Guide. You’re asking the former boss to validate what you’ve learned during the interviewing process.


Using Reference Interview Results

You now have 3 key data points from your Topgrading for Sales process:


  1. Talent Acquisition Documents
  2. Topgrading For Sales Interviews
  3. Reference Interviews


With this information, you can compare and contrast the 3 information sources to look for inconsistencies. For example, let’s say one of the competencies on the ‘A’ player scorecard is “negotiating.” During the interview process, the candidate gave you excellent examples of his negotiating wins. His former boss tells you the candidate struggled in deal negotiations. The boss had to step in and negotiate terms on a number of deals. The candidate struggled to bring deals over the line.


In this example, you might decide to pass on the candidate based on the reference interview. Your reference interviews for the other top candidates may reveal stronger options. A reference “check” would have failed to uncover this. By using the reference interview, you avoided making a costly mis-hire.


Assess your talent sourcing capabilities by downloading our 10th annual workbook, How to Make Your Number in 2017. Review the latest talent sourcing approach in the sales strategy section under People Plan phase on pages 285 – 293 of the PDF workbook.  


How to Make Your Number in 2017




John Staples

Leads teams of highly qualified experts, all relentless in their pursuit of helping you make your number.

John is the global leader of SBI’s account management business unit. As such, he and his team help clients across 19 verticals drive top line growth and operational efficiency in sales and marketing.


John’s marketing, sales and product expertise span a multichannel strategic approach. He has an unyielding focus on strategic and key account development, which enables strategic alignment between all functional team members in order to reduce acquisition cost and increase lifetime value.


His broad experience in sales, marketing, product and engineering allows him to bring a unique problem solving approach to his team and clients. As he has discovered through decades of experience, clients are often distracted by the symptoms of a larger problem and overlook the root cause of it.


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