References, and how to uncover the real truth…

I personally have hired more than 600 salespeople over the last 28-years for my past businesses. I don’t ever recall a candidate giving me a bad reference to check.

However, I did have one guy give me a fake reference. As far as I can tell he had a friend or family member pretend to be his old boss. Just by pure luck of circumstances, I was able to bust him on that one. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job, but I gave him an A+ for lack of integrity.

When I get references, my goal is to factually verify the information the candidate provided on their resume and determine if they are top sales talent.

The first step of verifying the information accuracy is relatively easy. Past employers tend to offer this information freely. With the previous employer, I’ll review the candidates resume to validate the position, job responsibilities, duration of employment, and any job-related accomplishments listed on the resume.

The second step is to find out if the candidate is genuinely top sales talent. This can be difficult as it’s rare that the candidate’s prior employer will open up and freely disclose any negative experiences.

I understand the past employer’s concerns. I have been called as a reference for my past employees, and even if I had issues with the employee, I would not disclose. I don’t want to be held liable, and I don’t want to create any drama with the past employee if he/she doesn’t get the job and finds out it was because I gave them a bad reference.

The good news is I’ve learned how to ask questions that will get all the information I need to determine if they are top sales talent.

Questions I’ll ask the past employer include:

  • What management style did you find was most effective in bringing out their best efforts?
  • When they didn’t achieve quota what was the typical reason?
  • How would you describe their sales style?
  • Out of cold calling, presenting or account managing, what did they do best?
  • Compared to the rest of the sales team, how did they rank? (Top half, middle, bottom?)
  • If there was one skill they could improve on, what would it be?
  • What would you say was their most significant sales accomplishment?

I’ve found employers are very open to answering these questions and the answers speak volumes.

Another critical step to the process is I ask every past employer the same questions. I’m looking for consistency in the answers from employer to employer. I even ask the same questions if the reference is a previous co-worker.

I don’t ask questions like:

  • Did they play well with others?
  • Would you hire them again?
  • Did you have any issues with them?

Those type of questions are too open-ended, and you’re not likely to get truthful answers.

As you can see, I don’t ask a lot of questions, and it’s intentional.

It’s critical to listen to the employer’s tone and speed at which they answer the questions. If they have to think about it or answer “I’m not sure” or “I can’t say” then that’s a sign there were issues.

If the candidate was a top performer, answers to those questions will come quickly. Another sign that the candidate is a top performer is when the past employer freely offers unasked for information.

So there you have it. A simple approach that will give you the valuable information you need to help determine if the candidate is, in fact, top sales talent.

Author: Bryan Payne the Chief Talent Scout and Founding Partner at Just Sales Jobs with over 25-years experience in sales and leading high-performance sales teams. You can reach him at 


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