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Hiring Salespeople: Reference Checking

Eliot Burdett posted a comment on my post about lying on resumes.  His own blog has a terrific list of challenges for those hiring sales people.  Here is his seventh point:  “Performing reference checks on someone who is employed is challenging due to confidentiality. (There are always managerial contacts that can be approached, although you may have to be creative in your approach.)”

The way I see it, there are three different categories of references relating to a sales candidate:

  1. Offered.  These are cousins, spouses, and best friends the candidate provides when asked, or listed on their resumes. These are generally of little value. 
  2. Blind.  Someone who can provide information about the candidate without the candidate knowing about it.  I worked with a CEO not long ago who was recruiting a VP of sales.  Between his network and mine, we managed to speak with 5 senior executives that knew the candidate very well and provided us with real insight.  (The candidate was not hired.)
  3. Revealed.  Revealed references are those names you collect during the interview process. (The candidate says, “So I asked that VP of customer care, ‘Is this investment budgeted?'”  So you say, “What was that VP’s name?”)  You can generally collect 10 to 15 names pretty easily.

Within the last two categories, you should complete at least one reference call with one customer, one peer and one manager.  That’s at total of six.  At a minimum. 

I know it’s hard getting people to speak about a former employee of their company.  With that in mind, I’ve had success getting blind and offered references to share their opinions about the candidate with me.  I pose very specific questions.  For example, if you are leaning toward hiring a candidate (why else would you be checking references?), you can say, “We’re seriously considering hiring Eliot.  We want him to be very successful in his new role.  Is there anything that I should do to assure that Eliot ramps up quickly?”  You are really asking for his weaknesses.  Isn’t it so much easier for someone to answer the question the way I posed it?

Why all this talk about hiring?  I’ll say it again.  We have found that as many as 33% of sales people aren’t suited for their job.  That means that all the training and coaching in the world won’t help them sell any better.  The best way to remedy that situation is to only hire people that will get the job done.


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