In the movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo Dicaprio plays the 1990s stockbroker and legendary salesman Jordan Belfort. In a famous scene, he is hosting a seminar for sales professionals and asks one or two of them to “Sell Me This Pen.” They all fail miserably. You can watch the clip here.
Now this question has become cliché, yet it crops up in many sales interviews. This article will explain the concept behind the idea of “selling the pen,” and how to respond if it crops up in an interview. We show how to formulate an answer that will earn you the sales job and respect as a Canis lupus of the sales world.
Presumably, if you have sales skills, you know that fundamentally, if you are selling something, you are looking to influence behavior. You want to motivate the target to either click on the “buy now” button, sign the contract, or do whatever it is to seal the deal. So, what’s the secret to making that happen?
A common theory is that you need to solve a problem for the customer. In the case of selling a pen, for example, the salesperson has to first understand the customer and their likes and dislikes. The salesperson must figure out how the pen can make that person’s life easier or benefit them in some way. The answer to this will be different for each individual.
With this understanding, the salesperson can then figure out how the pen might fit into the person’s life and then sell it to them in a way that will motivate them to make the purchase.
Here are the steps to the sales process:
Understand the customer—what makes them tick, their likes and dislikes
Identify how the product can help them.
Convince the client that they have a problem and only your solution will do.
If an interviewer asks you to “Sell me this pen,” they want to see that you understand the above concepts.
Let’s first look at where most people go wrong when responding to the challenge to “Sell me this pen.”
A common mistake that people who don’t understand the concept of sales make is to focus on the features of the pen. Sure, the pen may be beautifully designed, it might write with the perfect thickness on paper, and be well priced. Unfortunately, none of those things are likely to sell the pen.
A better approach on a sales call is to focus on the customer, not the product. What does the customer do for a living? How do pens fit into their life? How could that pen help them? The product could be a pen, a car, a cleaning service, an educational program; the concept is the same. If the customer does not need the pen or whatever the product is to relieve them of some discomfort or to make their life easier in some way, they are not likely to buy it.
So, it is your approach that the interviewer is interested in seeing. Are you focused on the product or getting to know the customer?
Here’s a better way to sell the pen.
The wrong approach, which is to focus on the pen’s features, capabilities, and how fantastic it is, is known as value-added selling. Here are two examples:
"This pen is leak-proof, so you'll never have a mess to clean up."
"Compared to other pens, this pen writes very smoothly and is comfortable to hold."
This approach will only work if the customer is looking specifically for a pen that will never leak, is smooth and comfortable to hold, and if all the other factors fall into place like price, appearance, and type. But, even then, the customer might not be particularly motivated to shop for a pen at that particular moment.
A better approach for a sales pitch is to focus on the customer, get to know their needs, gain their trust, and then present the product in a way that motivates them to buy it. This is customer-focused selling, or a solutions-based approach.
Value-based selling is flying blind. You might know the product you are selling inside and out, but you have no idea how or if it is of use to the customer. It’s like trying to sell ice hockey skates to a figure skater. You’re wasting your time.
Client-focused selling, or a solutions-based approach, is the better way to go. Right now, the customer does not have a pen on their radar, and it is the last thing they think they need. But you can change that perspective depending on what you learn about that customer and if you can get them to open up and to trust you.
In the case of the hockey player, they might not want figure skates, but they might have a friend or family member who would appreciate them.
It’s important to listen to the customer and understand them rather than talk about the product you are selling. This can be difficult for many salespeople who prefer to talk and are inclined to start describing the product immediately.
The key to selling a pen is to sell yourself. If your client likes you and trusts you, you are three-quarters of the way to a sale. If the client trusts you, they are more likely to take your advice. So, how do you get people to like you?
To get people to like you, you don’t focus on you, you focus on them. You show an interest in them. Most people like people who listen to them and their problems. People who understand this basic premise, that you don’t just “sell the pen,” you win over your customer by getting them to like you, master sales.
If the interviewer asks you to “Sell me this pen,” take a deep breath, because you're in roleplay mode. You should assume that the interviewer is the client and you are the salesperson.
The first step is to introduce yourself to the customer/interviewer and start asking some questions to get to know them. Here are some examples of questions you could ask.
“Hi! I’m Taylor. Nice to meet you. You look like an educator of some sort. Do you teach?
“Hi! I’m Jeff. It’s so nice to meet you. I’m a sales representative but don’t worry, I only target doctors. Are you in the health field?”
These questions are designed merely to break the ice and start up a conversation. Once a conversation has been initiated, you can ask further questions to get the person to open up so that you can get to know them better, get them to like you, and do some fact-finding.
This is a process of asking questions and listening. Some fact-finding questions to ask are the following:
What kind of pens do you currently use?
What’s wrong with your current pen choice?
What did you like about the last pen that you used?
When was the last time that you saw a pen that you liked?
What color pen do you typically use?
Information is everything. When you know enough about the customer and their needs, you can pitch the product in a way that is relevant to them in real life.
Still, this approach will get you just so far. You might hit a roadblock if the customer doesn’t want to engage in conversation with you, or if they have no need for a new pen.
That’s the time to adopt the problem-creation approach.
The problem-creation approach requires creative sales skills. The concept is to create a scenario where the customer becomes concerned about something that they didn’t know they were concerned about. It’s basically creating a problem and then solving it for them with the product.
For example, you could ask the customer how often they have to sign documents and how frustrating it is never to have a black ink pen within reach.
Or, point out to the interviewer that their pen seems to have leaked and they have an ink stain on their white shirt (you might have to improvise here). Point out that the pen you have is leakproof.
You might offer the interviewer something of value, but to get it they have to sign a document there and then. Ooops! They don’t have a pen. Here’s yours.
Some might consider this approach “setting the person up,” or manipulating them. But sales is, by definition, an act of persuasion. “To influence or induce to make a purchase,” is one definition of selling given by Mirriam-Webster.
One way to influence is to educate. So selling is also a process of education for both parties in the transaction. The seller must learn about the client’s lifestyle, needs, and preferences while the buyer is educated on the product and how it can be integrated into their life to benefit them.
Customer-focused selling and the problem-creation approach are a process of learning for both the seller and the buyer. A good salesperson collaborates with their customers by learning about them so that they can offer an option that meets their specific needs. It's not pressure sales, it's a win-win.
A hiring manager wants to know that you, as a salesperson or sales manager, understand the concepts presented in this article. And there is no right answer. You can either explain these concepts to the interviewer when given the opportunity, weave them into a role-playing exercise if required, or summarize them after you have tried to “sell the pen.” Remember, the best salespeople sell themselves.
In closing, here is a summary of the concepts behind the job interview question, can you “Sell me this pen?”
Selling a product is about gaining trust and selling yourself.
Selling a product requires earning a new customer’s trust.
Selling is a mutual process of learning both for the salesperson and the customer.
Selling a product requires learning about the customer’s lifestyle, needs, pain points, and preferences.
Selling a product requires educating the customer about the product.
Selling a product requires solving a problem for the customer, even if they don’t know it exists.
Selling with a customer-focused approach ensures a win-win outcome.