Advertising Sales Hiring Advice: Job Reference Questions

  • Posted by Steve Goldberg
  • |
  • June 25, 2010

Sales success is both an art and a science.  While this article is written for the benefit Sales Managers in Digital Media, the reference questions listed can be applied to ANY sales position.

First to set the stage, you already know the people on the candidate’s reference list will likely say positive things about them.  Hence, you have to dig a bit to get the information you need to complete this part of the hiring process.  Also, time is in such short supply for people that your time on the phone will be limited.  It will be up to you to make it count. And some of the best advice that we could give you is to make sure that you keep your best staff as happy as you can working for your business and one of the best ways that we have found to do that is to use a flexible employee benefits system as with those you can give them just what they want.

Some initial steps:

1.  Provide a brief overview of the position the candidate is being considered for to help create the context for the conversation.

2.  Prepare yourself by reviewing the list of questions you’ll be asking several times before the reference call.  With voicemail being so prevalent, it is likely you’ll be receiving a call back at a later time.  But fortunately, people take reference calls seriously and generally will get back to you quickly.

3.  Target the most important references.  Who should you speak with?  Former managers and clients (as recent as possible).  Co-worker references are of limited value.

4.  What should you ask?  Certainly, you should use the list below as a guide, and add some questions of your own.  There are questions you ask salespeople that are unique to them, and I’ve included these on the list.  But the answers to certain questions may take you down a different path – and if that happens, follow it.  You can always return to the list. 

Questions to ask


Confirm what is on the resume.  You already know this, but you can ask “how do you know him/her?”

How long have you known him/her?

Did you enjoy working with him/her?

If you only had one word to describe him/her, what would it be?


How would you describe their selling style? (consultative, engaging personality, strategic, relationship-builder)

When selling, was he/she aggressive in an appropriate way? (i.e., persistent but not pushy)

Is he/she creative?  Can you give an example?

Could you give an example of how he/she needed to be particularly strategic in a sale?  What was his/her specific role?

Does he/she “get” digital? How long has he/she been selling online?  Did he/she personally create and submit his/her own online plans/proposals?

Did he/she bring in a lot of new business?  How much?  Did they meet expectations?  Can you give an example of how they broke an account when the business was not initially on the plan?

Did he/she meet or exceed quota?  How did he/she do that?  How could he/she have done better?

How does he/she compare to other sales people you’ve managed?  What made them stand out on their sales team?

What were his/her most significant accomplishments while working with you?

What was one of the biggest obstacles he/she had to overcome?

How would you characterize his/her closing skills?

Specifically for client/agency references 

Were you already an advertiser, or did he/she bring you in as a client?

How did he/she initially get your business?

There is a lot of competition out there for your media buy, and a lot of other salespeople competing for your attention.  How does he/she stand out?

If agency….Does he/she keep you in the loop on conversation with your client?

If agency….Do you feel he/she is respectful of client agency relationship?

If client… Are you comfortable that he/she always keeps your agency in the loop and gives both client and agency the information they need?

Was there ever an instance where you and the candidate’s company encountered a problem? (make goods, positioning snafus, under performing online presence), and if so, what did the candidate do to remedy the situation and move it forward.

If a Manager:

Describe his/her relationship with his/her direct reports?

Was he/she a micro-manager, or did he/she let his/her team run with the ball, so to speak?

How did he/she make management decisions?  How would you describe his/her process?

Did they provide leadership to their team?  Was he/she a “doer” or a “delegator”, and how did he/she balance the two?

How would his/her direct reports describe him/her?

If “digging”, or discussing a weakness:

How could he/she have improved the outcome of __________?

In hindsight, what do you think he/she could have changed?

Did he/she learn new skills in managing through that issue?

How responsive is he/she to constructive criticism and feedback?

What areas, if any, would you say he/she needs improvements or further development?  Were these discussed on his/her last performance review?  What has he/she done to improve these areas?


Does he/she work well within a team?  Can you give me an example where he/she was able to earn the respect of his/her peers?

Does he/she adapt well to change?  Do they work well in a fast-paced, entrepreneurial environment?

What was he/she like to manage? Why?

How would you rate him/her on follow through and follow-up? Attention to detail?

How would you describe his/her work ethic?  Does he/she work well independently?  Are they a self-starter?  Were there aspects of the job where you had to stay involved in the detail?

In general, what do you think motivates him/her?

What are his/her greatest strengths?

Were they on time, punctual, etc.?

Why did he/she leave?

Would you rehire him/her?