It’s been a part of sales job interview lore for decades – making its appearance in books, movies, and in real life. But is “Sell me this pen” still a valid exercise to use in a changed marketplace? By now it’s long past the freshness date and has ossified into old school, bordering on cliché. More importantly, if the question is still valid, what does the right answer look like and what are the implications for today’s sales reps?
To answer the first part of the question, yes it’s still a valid exercise despite its age – it’s a way for interviewers to diagnose selling skills/approaches and for applicants to demonstrate their “sales chops”, without the extended nature of an industry-specific roleplay that might require product knowledge the candidate simply doesn’t have.
In terms of the second half of the question, the answer is like anything else in sales – follow the appropriate steps used in any consultative, customer-focused sales process. It consists of three steps in this shortened interview format, and we’ve outlined said steps below.
Step 1: Ask questions to engage in discovery.
Find out more about the interviewer-buyer. What led them to seek a pen to buy now? What have their previous experiences been with other pens? What do they like/dislike in a pen? How do they intend to use this pen? These are all examples of questions that help you figure out what’s important to the interviewer-buyer in this scenario and, in the context of the interview, demonstrate a buyer-focused sales approach.
Step 2: Link features/benefits to identified needs and opportunities from Step 1.
One of the most common answers people give to this question in interviews is to start talking about the pen’s features and benefits. The problem with that approach is that talking about the features and benefits in a vacuum, without any buyer information, doesn’t accomplish anything. Saying, for example, “You indicated that having a soft grip is essential to be more comfortable writing, and this pen has that,” after you discovered that is completely different from, “This pen’s soft grip ensures more comfortable writing,” without any context or clue if that’s relevant to the buyer’s interests.
Step 3: Close by defining next steps and gaining confirmation on those next steps.
Most people will close by asking for the buyer to commit to purchasing the pen. If you opt for that approach and the buyer agrees, add to it by saying something like, “Great! I’m excited to be working with you. The next step in the process is that I’ll send you the purchase order by the end of the day. Then you’ll sign and return the contract by Monday, and we’ll ship your order on Tuesday. Does this work for you?”
What if it goes awry?
You should expect objections – that’s part of the sales process and the interviewer will be interested in seeing how you handle them. But what if, after discovery, you realize the pen doesn’t fit the interviewer-buyer’s needs? Many people will try to force the sale anyway. Don’t. Instead, say something like, “Based on (X, Y, Z need/desire), it seems that this pen isn’t the right fit for you. However, some of our other offerings might be. Would you like to set up a time to discuss some of those other options in more detail?”
Obviously, this is a role-play scenario in an interview designed to test your selling skills. But going the alternate route if the above situation comes up (I hate the feel of Bic Cristal pens, for example) demonstrates again that you’re buyer-focused and able to think quickly in a sales situation.
What the best answer says about the larger sales world
Like most classic symbols that stand the test of time, yet change their meaning and import throughout the years, the sell me the pen question speaks to larger issues than just a standard interview question and the appropriate answer.
Imbedded in this simple exercise is the realization and reality that the hard-press sell and the detached description of selling on product are both ineffective sales approaches. Instead, it’s about having a conversation about needs and building a relationship with your buyer – determining who they are, what they need, and their goals, and how what you’re selling can be the potential solution or thing that helps them get where they want to be.
You’ve got the answer. Now go out there, knock out that interview, and continue your path to becoming the best, trusted sales professional you can be.