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Hello, I am Steve Suggs, sales recruiting expert and author of the book, Can They Sell. Welcome to my sales recruitment video blog where you learn to hire the best sales people.

While coaching sales managers, I’ve found that the reference check is the most commonly overlooked step in the process of hiring salespeople. Managers tell me that they don’t check references because

  • the candidate will only give references who will say great things about them, or
  • it’s impossible to get references to talk to you because of their fear of a lawsuit.

Both of these are legitimate reasons, but I’ve discovered a way to get over both of these hurdles and get six references to talk to me about the candidate. I’ve even had two Wal-mart executives give me a reference for a candidate using this method that I’m about to show you.

Here’s the reference check method.

It’s important that you follow every step, because each step builds on the previous step. Also, this method is not only a way to get six references who will talk to you, but it’s also an assignment for the candidate to test their ability to follow instructions, follow up on important tasks, and measure how badly they want the job.

Step 1 –  Tell the candidate to provide you with six references in these three categories:

  • 2 former bosses
  • 2 former co-workers
  • 2 former customers

The coworkers should be people with whom they worked closely on a daily basis. Not people who reported to them or people to whom they reported, but coworkers with whom they work side-by-side. If you’re recruiting someone without sales experience, ask them for two business people in the community who can vouch for them.


Step 2 – Tell the candidate that you want six people, that when you call them, they will say great things about you. If you’re thinking that this step sets the candidate up for success, you are going to be surprised as to how many candidates fail this step of the test.

Strong candidates:

  • will give you six references in the three categories you have requested
  • will call the references and alert them to the fact that you will be calling them
  • will tell them to please say great things about them

Weak candidates:

  • provide fewer than six references
  • provide multiple references in the wrong categories
  • don’t take the time to call the references to make sure phone numbers work and to alert the reference that you’ll be calling

If a candidate cannot follow this simple assignment, it’s typically a good sign that they’re not serious about a career, nor will they be capable of completing much harder job tasks that you will be giving them the first week on the job. For those candidates who follow your instructions, you now have six individuals who will talk to you with permission from the candidate.

So we’ve gotten over the first hurdle of finding people who will talk to us. We get over the second hurdle of only hearing the good things about the candidate by having great questions prepared to ask the referral source. Ask questions like:

  • What were they hired to do?
  • Why did they leave?
  • What positive words of reference do you have?
  • What were their best qualities as a salesperson?
  • In what areas do they need the most development?
  • Would you rehire them?

And, there are many others.

For a complete reference check questionnaire please visit CanTheySell.com.

These questions warm up the referral source for more direct questions. By the time I get to the reference check, I’ve interviewed the candidate over the telephone, they’ve completed an e-mail questionnaire, and I’ve conducted a face-to-face interview with detailed questions regarding the 5 dimensions of top salespeople. By now, I have a pretty good idea of the candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

I now use a technique that I learned from the TV detective, Columbo.

While interviewing a suspect, when he wasn’t getting the detailed information that he wanted, he would turn to leave the room, place his hand on the doorknob, and before turning the doorknob, he would turn to the suspect and say, “Oh, by the way, I have one more question.” This “Oh, by the way” question was always an important question that usually revealed the truth. So, after I’ve warmed up the referral source with a few of my standard reference check questions, I throw out the “Oh, by the way” question.

“Oh, by the way…How well did Ted manage his time?”

“Oh, by the way…How well did Ted get along with others?”

“Oh, by the way…Can you trust everything that Ted tells you?”

Before the phone call, I simply write down some questions related to the potential weaknesses that I have observed in the candidate up to this point in the interview process. Most of the time, the referral source says good things about the candidate, and many times will give additional information about some of the challenges the candidate has. These challenges may not be things that are significant enough that you wouldn’t select the candidate for the job, but

the information from the referral source is information that you will need for coaching and training.

Remember –

  • It’s not always what people say when they answer these questions, but more importantly, how they say it.
  • Pay attention to the tone of their voice.
  • Do they hesitate before they answer, because they may be trying to not reveal a weakness in the candidate?
  • Notice the difference between things like, “Ted gets along well with everyone” vs. “Yes, Ted pretty much gets along with almost everyone.”

You’ll be surprised that once you get someone on the telephone who has been asked by the candidate to give a reference what they will tell you about the candidate. Sometimes, you simply get lucky. I once had a candidate who gave me a reference, and I happened to know the reference personally, and when I called him, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Oh, you’re interviewing crazy Kathy.” Wow, did I get lucky!

Here are two additional questions that will give you more insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate:

  • “Who are two other people that I could call, who will say great things about Ted?”
  • “Who is someone that Ted worked with that he didn’t get along well with?”

How quickly the referral source gives you two other names that will say great things about Ted is an indication of his strength as a candidate. If the referral source says something like, “I really can’t think of anyone that Ted didn’t get along well with,” versus something like, “Well, Ted pretty much got along with just about everyone” or “I’m not really comfortable giving out names like that,” remember, it’s not always what they say when giving you more names to call, but how they say it.

Keep in mind, that it’s important to give the candidate these exact instructions. How well they follow the instructions is a test which will measure many character and personality traits. Also, this method will give you the opportunity to talk to six people who will give you surprising information about the candidate.

When hiring salespeople, check the references using this method so that you don’t rob yourself of the opportunity to possibly get important information about the candidate that will help you make an important hiring decision.

Thank you for joining me. See you next time on the Can They Sell video blog for more sales job recruitment training. As always, please leave your comments below and forward this video to anyone who will benefit. Now go enjoy recruiting the best, and have fun while checking references.


Learn more about the following:

 Where to find sales people, where to find sale reps

• What to look for while recruiting salespeople – 5 Dimensions of the Best Salesperson Profile Hiring sales, hire salespeople, hire sales people, hiring sales people, hiring sales reps, IT sales recruitment, recruiting sales people, sales job recruitment
• How to look for the 5 Dimensions – get questionnaires – interview questions for sales, interview questions for salespeople, sales interview, interview questions for sales people


To YOUR Success,

Steve Suggs





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