The secret to doing great reference calls

Three calls. Six questions. Enlightenment.

Whether you are signing up a huge supplier, hiring an employee or thinking of making an investment, reference calls are absolutely crucial. Before I learned how to do them properly, they were purely factual in nature, “Hey, did Jim work with you from 2011 to 2013? What was his job title?” For a very long time, I thought that was all reference calls were good for. Oh, how wrong I was. Over the years, I learned that there are six awesome questions you can ask to get the answers you are looking for.

In this example, I will assume that I’m hiring someone, but the same logic applies to all other situations where you may need to call references.

Why do reference calls?

I originally assumed that a reference call exists to check whether a job candidate is bending the truth or straight-up lying to you. That, it turns out, isn’t the case. I mean, it is that, also, but it isn’t what the reference calls are for. The main purpose is to get a deeper understanding of the person you are about to do business with. Determine what drives them, figure out whether and how they fit into your organization, and — perhaps most importantly — figure out what to talk with them about in subsequent conversations.

There are two parts to reference calls: Who do you call and what do you ask? This article will cover both. These days, I would not even consider making an investment, hiring a staff member or taking a job (or a serious, multimonth consulting engagement) without doing three reference calls.