You can download the Reference Interview template here. It provides the questions we recommend asking a reference when performing due diligence on a candidate.


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If you’ve followed the Topgrading for Sales methodology, you’ve put the best candidates to the test. Each candidate has been through Talent Definition, Acquisition, and Evaluation.


Now, it’s time to execute the Talent Selection process, beginning with the Reference Interview. The candidate has made it this far. Now you need to answer “Is this guy for real”?


The Difference Between the Reference Check and the Reference Interview


The Reference “Check”

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.


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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.


If you’d like to access the Topgrading for Sales reference interview questions, download the guide here.


You’ve now “graduated” from phase 4 in SBI’s Topgrading for Sales methodology. The fifth and final phase focuses on Talent Development. Stay tuned for my next post. It will cover how to onboard your new ‘A’ player to make them successful quickly.