Anyone who has seen Martin Scorsese’s – “The Wolf of Wall Street”, featuring Leonardo DiCaprio as the infamous stock-broker and salesman, Jordan Belfort, contains a classic “Sell me this pen” sales lesson scenario.
In the movie, DiCaprio’s Belfort teaches his sales team their first lesson by pulling out a pen and saying, “sell me this pen.” One character takes the pen and asks Jordan to write his name in a napkin.
Jordan doesn’t have anything to write with and has to ask for a pen. Boom. He made the sale.
Jake’s Answer – HR Specialist
First, the point of the whole “Sell me this pen” is mostly used to identify if the person getting interviewed is in any way a good candidate for a sales job.
It’s the same reason companies like Boston Consulting Group ask candidates questions like:
“How many square meters of pizza do Americans eat every week?”
You’re not supposed to give an exact number, it is your thought process that matters. When an interviewer ask you to “sell me this pen”, he doesn’t look for a gimmicky answer – he wants to see you be able to perform a basic sales call.
He want’s to spot if you are a poor salesman or a good salesman.
So let’s look at the tale of the tape, shall we?
- A) Talks about the product features
- B) Doesn’t ask questions
- C) Doesn’t try to identify the clients real reason for purchase
- D) See every interaction as a one-time transaction
- A) Instead of focusing on the product features, the great salesman focuses on the benefit that feature gives and the meaning it has for the client.
Example: HD-TV (feature) –> Better resolution (benefit) –> Better viewing experience (meaning). Nobody cares about the feature, at the end of the day they buy it for what it does for them.
- B) The only way to understand what the client wants is by asking questions. You cannot guess what the client needs.
A great salesman knows that there is a reason we humans have two ears and only one mouth. We should let the client do the talking. How do you get the client talking?…exactly…by asking questions.
- C) An old man comes to your store and wants to buy a swing. Why? Do you think he wants to entertain himself in his golden years.
Nope, he probably wants to set it up so when his grand-kids visit, they would have something fun to do. That means that the real reason for his purchase is to have a great time with this grand-kids.
Once you’ve identified the real reason, you can make a more compelling offer – sell him a big toy castle, with a slippery slide and two swings.
- D) A great salesman does everything he can to build up trust and a solid relationship with every client. He does it by providing value that other salesmen can’t match.
That means sometimes that he offers an cheaper alternative because he understands that it’s the better choice for the client.
The absolute best answer is…….
It depends what kind of job you are interviewing for (Cue in sad wah wah). Sorry to disappoint you, but there’s a big difference if you sell B2C or B2B products. There’s also a big difference between selling products/services with long vs short sales cycles.
If you are interviewing for a B2B company that sells complicated products with long sales cycles, well then the classic half-gimmicky answers wont do wonders. They might however work great when it comes to B2C sales, with short cycles and one-time transactions.
As I said before, the main point is to show that you are even in the ballpark when it comes to sales. The person who just fumbles for words and talks about the features of the pen are weeded out quickly.
So don’t worry about not being answering the interviewer in a clever and crafty way. Focus on the great salesman’s A-D above and you’ll do fine!
Ron – Consultant who was asked this question
This is a great way to tell what kind of salesperson you are. I have asked this question 100’s of times in interviews – but I ask about a watch instead. There are two ways to answer it that are effective – let’s dissect these two options:
1.) The goal of the question is not the answer, but to understand how the thinking process of that person works and if that he/she knows how to ask smart questions.
Example would be: “Okay, no problem. I just need to ask you a few questions before I can give you a proper answer.” And then ask:
- What do you like best about pencils?
- Tell me a situation in the past when you wished you had a pencil and you didn’t!
- What is a ballpark price you are willing to pay for this pencil?
I guess you got my point, right?
The objective in this circumstance is to gather as much information as possible, and use it to create an irresistible offer.
With this info you will be able to create a strong need for your product by talking about the experience they had when they needed the pencil but didn’t have it, mention the specific things that they love about the product, and finally negotiate the price knowing beforehand how much they can afford.
You see, all customers are different and you have to ask questions to understand how to best approach them. People buy the same things for completely different reasons. So, don’t pretend that you know what’s the best way to sell something before you get a clear picture of who’s in front of you.
2.) The other method, I learnt from a guy who bluntly told me that he knew the reasoning behind that question.
He said: “You basically want me to ask you a bunch of relevant questions that will lead me to understand what’s the best approach to sell you this product – I know the game, and I can ensure you that I work hard to be the best in the business.
If you give me one week, I will prove to you that I can be one of your top employees.” I hired him on the spot – he was confident and he was one hell of a salesman.
It’s also important to know that most of the times you will face objections when negotiating.
I know a story from a guy who was trying to get a job at an Air Conditioning company, and the manager told him “no” every single week. His explanation was: “Sorry, but I don’t have an extra van to train you, and I just can’t afford the cost since you have no experience”.
After the third no, the man looking for the job went and bought a new van. He showed up the next week and told the owner: “Listen…. You don’t have to pay me to train. Hell.. at $10 an hour I would be embarrassed to take your money anyway. I know you don’t have an extra van, so here you go, I bought one. Feel free to put your logos on it and if I’m not the top producer within one month of going on my own, then I’ll part ways. No strings attached.”
He got the job and set records for that company. What he did was to isolate objections and overcome them. And this is the same goal of the “sell me this pencil” question.
Nicol’s Answer – HR Manager
I’ve been on both sides of this question, both interviewing people and interviewing for sales jobs. It can be awkward.
And as highlighted in “The Wolf of Wall Street” you don’t want to start talking about how sleek the pen is or more generally listing all the properties of the pen.
I’d recommend selling the pen below in 4 steps.
Step #1. Ask the person what they do.
You want to understand what kind of person you are selling to. How will they use your product? If they are in management, they probably sign important documents and checks.
Listening to them will give you background and hints as to how to most effectively persuade them to buy this pen.
Step #2. Acknowledge how important their job is and get them talking about the last time they used a pen.
Link their job importance to their use of your product. Signing checks is important. They don’t want to be wasting time looking for a pen, or using one that is running out of ink. Their signature is important and should look strong.
Highlight a feature of the pen you are selling, and associate it with a signature fitting for the work they are doing. For example, if they are signing important legal documents they should sign in your pen’s strong blue ink, so they can distinguish the original document from a copy.
Gauge their reaction to the usefulness of the pen and the power it wields.
Step #3. Highlight an emotional use for the pen.
In step #2 you sold them on the importance and practical uses of your product. Now in the next step, sell them on the emotional benefits of your product. Using the pen for writing a handwritten note.
Tell them a story. Highlight how you have started writing your spouse, parents, and friends handwritten notes. Get them thinking about someone in their life that they appreciate, and that they would like to thank.
Make an emotional and personal connection with the pen. The handwritten card and bright blue signed ink can be their trademark.
Step #4. Hand them back the pen and close the deal.
Close with connecting to the things that they connected most strongly to.
If they seemed to resonate more with step #2, tell them it’s time to buy the pen and get back to work signing contracts.
If they told you their mother’s birthday is tomorrow and they haven’t gotten her a gift yet, tell them it’s time to buy the pen and write her a special card.