One of the most classic exercises in sales interviews is to challenge the applicant to ‘sell me this pen.’ The line was most recently showcased in the popular Martin Scorsese movie The Wolf of Wall Street, but it actually goes back much further. The classic business battle cry associated with the cold-selling of a pen to a stranger taps into some of the most fundamental aspects of salesmanship.

First off, it doesn’t have to actually be a pen. It could be any menial object. But the point is to illuminate the interviewee’s ability to impressively conduct a few basic tasks: 1) gather information 2) respond to information 3) deliver information and 4) ask for something (many would call this closing the deal). 

In some ways, the philosophy behind sales is changing due to advances in technology and cultural shifts. In other ways, this metric – sell me this pen – is still relevant. In a recent blog post, Nick Kane laid out an even simpler 3-step methodology. 

Step 1 – Reconnaissance

Tasked with cold-selling someone something fairly innocuous, like a pen, can be immensely challenging, particularly because in this particular scenario, the person challenging you already knows what the score is: they don’t actually want a pen; they want to see how you would go about selling one.

The first thing you must do is acquire information about the interviewer-buyer. The point of this, ultimately, is to craft a personalized buyer-focused sales strategy. In the meantime, your questions to the buyer can help establish a rapport and will ideally endear them to you.

Your questions should be tailored to extract the following information:
~Why do they want a pen right now?
~What has their previous pen experience been?
~What aspects of pens do they like or dislike?
~What will the pen be used for?

Step 2 – Making a connection to buyer’s needs

Most of the time, describing certain features or attributes of the pen you’re selling will not help you. You need to know why the person needs a pen. Pens are pretty common objects and most people don’t put too much thought into them. So to sell a specific pen you must identify the emotional or physical connection. 

For example, is this purely a comfort thing? If the buyer has arthritis or some kind of sore on their hand or fingers, they may specifically need a soft grip. If they hardly ever use pens and only brandish one ceremonially to sign special contracts, purchasing a specific pen could have more of an emotional resonance. This is why step 1 was necessary, determining why they care about a pen in the first place. 

Step 2 involves you linking your sales strategy to the personal information you gleaned during step 1. 

Step 3 – Always be closing

The classic salesmens’ film Glengarry Glen Ross popularized the phrase, “Always be closing,” which is a mantra in some sales offices. Step 3 of selling the pen involves finalizing the deal. This is only possible once you’ve identified the buyer’s needs and tailored a sales strategy to that particular vector. 

Basically, by the time you get to step 3, you should be planning the contract and thanking the buyer. Will it always work this smoothly? Not necessarily, but even if this particular pen isn’t right for them, you are setting them up to buy a different pen now, the same pen (and more of them) in the future, or a different product altogether.

There are some masterful answers to the ‘sell me this pen’ challenge. Most revolve around the premise that you’re not just selling a pen but showcasing how effectively you can sell a product. If you’re ever applying for a sales position, you should expect your interviewer to task you with some variation of this challenge. It might not be a pen, but they will want to see how seamlessly and confidently you can negotiate sales interactions before hiring you (onboarding costs money).

When selling anything, you should never just wing it and make it up as you go along; have a formula that you can plug different variables into for each new sale. Not every customer is the same, but the basic premise of selling remains similar….what does the buyer need and what information do you need to collect and then deliver to convince them that your product satisfies that need? 

When you can quickly answer this question and convert the information into a sales pitch, you’re on your way to closing. 

Sales stock photo by MUNGKHOOD STUDIO/Shutterstock