In order for this question to be effective, you have 7 types of techniques at your disposal.
- Be able to connect the pen to something they care about/ attach a story to it. (This pen is the same kind of pen used by James Bond in Casino Royal).
- Be able to connect the pen to higher status. (This pen is an accessory that will allow you to command more respect and authority from your peers).
- Be able to establish the pen as rare or a collector’s item. (There were only 50 of these pens made in the entire world).
- Be able to connect the pen to being higher quality. (This pen is going to last you a lifetime).
- Build rapport/trust to make the sale emotion based. (Yeah it may be a low-quality pen at a bad price, but you like me now so you should buy it anyways).
- Be able to connect the pen based on price point. (We are selling these at a bulk discount and will beat any competitors price).
- Be able to connect the pen based on an immediate need. (Can you write your name for me please? Oh you don’t have a pen? Exactly, supply and demand. Buy this one from me).
So what exactly is the problem?
The Problem with this question however, is the majority of the time you are asked to sell a cheap, generic pen to the person interviewing you. This limits the amount of techniques you can use to sell the item to just numbers 5, 6 and 7. The only way to use the other 4 is to basically “make up” a story about the pen. And do we really want to advocate lying to prospects? I don’t think we do.
Another problem is if you aren’t at the cheapest price point (6) or if your prospect doesn’t have an immediate need (7) you have to rely on building rapport. This means you will take the longest amount of time to sell something that, most likely, won’t give you a great amount of return (unless you sell in bulk).
This wouldn’t be a problem in the real world where you don’t sell things to people that don’t need it, but in an interview, they are wanting to see your creativity. This FORCES you to sit there an answer an outdated, irrelevant question that doesn’t really pertain to your ability to do your job.
Because good sales people can sell anything, but the best sales people sell what they believe in. I wouldn’t want to work for a company that wants me to sell generic products to people that don’t need them. Unfortunately, too many companies do this to their sales people and they use the excuses that are given below.
Excuse #1 – It’s relevant if you are hiring a sales person.
I hate this excuse. This is often spoken by hiring managers that don’t actually have experience in sales or are out of touch with sales in general. They ask this question to determine “if you know how to sell” when they could just as easily look at the experience listed on your resume.
Better yet, why would you ask someone to sell you a pen when you sell cars or computers? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ask them to sell you a computer or a car? Wouldn’t it make more sense to see what it would actually look like to sell your product?
Using this question to determine if you’re hiring a person that “can sell” is irrelevant and is a sign of a lazy interviewer.
Excuse #2 – A good sales person needs to know how to sell anything.
This is a flat out lie. That tired line of “I can sell ice to an Eskimo” just screams “I exaggerate benefits to sell things people don’t need.” This mentality is the exact reason sales people have a bad reputation among customers and businesses and it needs to stop.
You don’t need a sales person that knows how to use the basics, you need a sales person that knows how to sell your product or service. You can eliminate two birds with one stone by simply replacing the pen with your actual product or service.
Granted, if you have different product experience but a similar industry it can bleed over to your new position. For instance, if you used to sell furniture and you now sell office design services. Those past experiences ad to your credibility and relatable knowledge for the current position you are in.
However, a cheap $1 pen isn’t going to have the same sales process as a $70,000 sports car. So why would you pretend that the person selling a sports car needs to know how to sell a cheap pen? The “basics” aren’t the same, so we shouldn’t act like they are by asking this question.
Excuse #3 – It is to test the sales persons creativity.
This one is a stretch. Because while it can test a sales person’s creativity, it often leans towards “making up” rubbish on the spot that isn’t relevant. Or worse, is an outright lie.
Once again, you don’t need a sales person that is necessarily “creative.” You need one that knows how to over-turn objections and accurately relay the benefits to the customer. If your sales person knows their product, or at least knows how to get the proper information, being “creative” will come naturally or isn’t really needed.
Even if they do need to be creative, selling something like a cheap pen and acting like it represents your company or product just makes it seem like your product is cheap and uninteresting. And maybe it is, not everything can be exciting.
But if it is cheap, and you do sell on price, be up front about it. Know that going into the sell is going to mainly focus on price, report, and immediate needs. Even so, don’t ask them to sell you a pen, ask them to sell your actual product instead.
As mentioned earlier, using this question to determine creativity is lazy. After all, how can you ask your sales person to be creative when you yourself weren’t creative enough to come up with a more original question?
But I still want to ask this question.
Guess what, that’s fine if you want to still ask the “sell me this pen” Question. Just try an improve the actual pen that you are having to sell instead of just using a generic Bic pen that you get out of a $2 pack at Walmart. This way, it will more accurately reflect your product and not limit your sales person to what they can use to sell you.
Also, make sure you have a desired intention when asking this question that follows at least 1 of the 7 techniques. Don’t just ask it to “see what the interviewee says.” So what would that look like?
1) Be able to connect the pen to something they care about/attach a story to it.
If you’re selling a high quality item, people will want to justify it with logic. The problem is assuming everyone is a logical thinker. In reality, People buy higher ticket items based on emotion and justify it with logic.
When trying to sell a high quality pen, make sure there is a story you can use that can have an emotional tie into the pen.
You should expect your sales person to know the history behind the pen, or to be able to relate it to something they have done in the past. Have them talk about how they used this pen to show a previous client how they were in lined with quality. After all, if they care that much about a pen surely they would care even more about their prospect getting exactly what they need from your product or service.
A great example of this is from Dan Lok. You can watch that video below.
2) Be able to connect the pen to higher status.
If you’re selling a higher end product like sports cars and suits, you want to leverage the importance of status. Nobody needs a Mercedes or Ferrari necessarily, but you don’t buy those things because of a need. You buy them because of their ties to higher status.
If you are asking them to “sell me this pen” and you focus on these higher end industries, you want to look for a response that ties together the emotional feeling behind status. This could look something like how this quality pen with give them an edge over other business owners that have just basic pens. “If you take out this pen to sign documentation, people are going to take you more seriously and think higher of you.”
As human beings, we may not all desire fancy titles and big homes, but on some level everybody desires some level of social status.
3) Be able to establish the pen as rare or a collector’s item.
This one will be tough, because unless your pen actually is rare you are more likely going to rely on points 1 and 2. However, if you do sell custom made one of a kind products you might want to focus on asking them to sell an actual product you sell instead of asking them to sell you a pen that you have.
4) Be able to connect the pen to being higher quality.
This one should be an obvious pitch if the pen you are using has any kind of quality attached to it. In fact, if you are selling any kind of quality item at all and your sales person doesn’t mention that as a reason during the interview you might want to rethink hiring that person in the first place.
5) Build rapport/trust to make the sale emotion based.
This technique is going to be one of the few in your arsenal that can be used for both high quality and low quality items. Primarily because if you’re selling a high quality product or service the goal is to get them to get over the price hurtle. If you’re selling a low quality item the goal is to get them to buy in bulk to make up for the time and cost associated with that product or service.
When asking them to sell you a pen based on emotion, look to see how they do in conversations. Learn their over all approach to see how they work under pressure and with questions they might not have encountered before. This will show you how they think on their feet.
6) Be able to connect the pen based on price point.
This is also going to be the main point you use if you are selling lower quality items in bulk. Primarily you are going to have them sell you a pen based on building rapport, with price being a small part of the sale. For higher quality items, you can use discounts to cut deals. Look to see if your potential sales person can use discounts to get more money when you ask them to sell your pen.
7) Be able to connect the pen based on an immediate need.
In a crowded world of businesses offering everything under the sun, uniqueness is what causes some businesses to thrive while others die. If you are in a saturated market, you want to look for an answer that is unique or answers the sell me this pen question in a way that has been really fleshed out. A great example of this is the diner scene from Wolf of Wall street. You can watch that here (warning, adult language):
Want to learn more about bettering your sales process? Check out our blog post: 3 Tips to Improve your Sales Process as a Consultant