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Is A Reference Check In A Sales Call A Sign Of Weakness?

What is the purpose of a reference check?  Whether it's for a candidate or for a sales call, a reference check is designed to give some level of comfort to a buyer/hirer that the process they just completed was legitimate. 

It's checking to make sure that what you were told was the truth, and that you were not sold a bill of goods.  

Some people will say references are an important part of any sales process, of any interview.  It shows a thoroughness on the part of the checker - a covering of all bases. It is a risk management tool that serves as a warning to fraudsters and con men that they have to do more than spin a good yarn.

But enough with the metaphors, and on to the sales lesson.  I'm not here to talk about the importance or wisdom of references. I'm here to share a story about bad salespeople, who require references. 

I was learning at the foot of a master salesman.  The guy had been around, knew how to close, and most important, was willing to teach.  Sitting in his office, we would wait for sales agents out in the field to call in during client presentations.  The call was a necessary part of the sale.  Salespeople had to get authorization on their deals.  Anyone who has bought a car understands why this works, and its importance in negotiation. 

The strong ones called in and laid out the deals they were negotiating.  They used the call as a tool to show a process of buying.  That process made the clients comfortable.  It showed the salesperson had a company behind them, and the call was part of that process.  They weren't asking for permission to close, they were playing a role to create urgency.   

The weak ones used the call for backup.  The sales manager knew this, and would tell me before the call what would happen. 

"He's going to call in, tell us it's a good deal with an interested client.  He's going to say, 'They're almost ready to sign, but they want to talk to some references first.'"

And just like the sales manager was some kind of prophet, that's exactly what would happen.  The sales guy would call in, say he had a good deal, and explain that references were all that was needed to close the deal. 

Here's what I learned. References never close the deal.  If you cannot close the deal by yourself, references are not going to do it for you.  That's why they're called a reference check, and not a reference close.  

1) Only a durned fool gives bad references.  While I've seen it happen for candidates, that's because candidates have learned that a lot of companies don't actually check references.  In sales, that doesn't happen.  That means that only positive references are given.  What use are those? 

2) It's not the reference check that's the problem.  It's the idea that it has power.  Reference checks are designed only to make the checker feel good in their decision. 

What's the proper way to handle a request for a reference in a sales call?  This is what I was taught. 

Sales Manager:  Tell them this.  Tell them of course you're going to give them references, but you're sensing there is something else going on. Do they have concerns about the project?  Are they prepared to buy right there?  If we call and get the references on the phone, will they sign upon hanging up?  We ask because references have to be protected.  They've graciously allowed us to use their name, but it's not their job to sell for us.  So again, tell them of course they can check references, but let's make sure that there isn't anything else stopping them from signing. 

It's a beautiful understanding of the sales process, and the response of the prospect would tell us all we needed to know. 

1) Just give us the references, and we'll call them: This meant they were stalling, and asking for references was their way of ending the sales meeting without having to sign a commitment. 

2) They admitted their were other factors in place: including time, budget, and/or revisions to what we intended to sell them:

3) They got belligerent: This was usually followed by the suggestion that a failure to provide references was a sign we were hiding something. 

This was always the most interesting, because it told us the problem was not the product.  Those who got belligerent fell into two camps - those that had purchased a similar product and had been burned, and those who did not trust the salesperson.

The belligerence was based either on fear of getting burned again, or distrust of the salesperson.  In both cases, it showed someone who could be sold by the right person.  

In no case, and in no time since, has a request for a reference check in a sales process ever led to a sale. Reference checks asked before the conclusion of a deal happen because the salesperson failed to unearth relevant information about the prospect.  While it is entirely normal for a prospect to ask for them, the time and manner in which they ask should serve as a signal as to whether or not you will close the deal.