Preparing for an interview is stressful and often daunting. You really have no way of knowing what you’ll be asked and practicing can feel like shooting in the dark.
But for sales or marketing jobs, it’s particularly important to focus on the art of persuasion. It’s always a safe bet to assume that you’ll be asked about your approach to selling.
That’s why “sell me this pen” is a common concept in sales-related interviews. You may remember Leonardo DiCaprio using the tactic in The Wolf of Wall Street, portraying the infamous stockbroker and author Jordan Belfort. He used this tactic to teach people that it’s more about necessity and intrigue, and less about the object being sold.
What does this question mean? When do interviewers use this tactic, and what’s the point? Let’s walk through everything you need to know.
What’s the point of “sell me this pen”?
Interviewers commonly say “sell me this pen” when looking for the right sales candidate. Other forms this question may take include “sell me this Coke” or even, “sell me something, anything.” The key here is to avoid focusing on the pen or item itself and instead prove you have an effective approach to sales.
It’s also helpful to point out that, like any interview question, the interviewer is interested in the way you answer, including your demeanor and authenticity.
“Interviewers want to see how you answer the question, not necessarily what you say,” says, Neely Raffellini, career coach for the Muse.
They want to assess things like your confidence and your ability to think on the fly. These are especially relevant qualities for salespeople since you often have to think quickly and creatively to keep someone engaged in the present moment.
Salespeople have to be able to turn anything into an opportunity. They have to be convincing, above all, no matter the topic. That’s why using something so simple as a pen is a great way to see if a sales candidate can sell basically anything using the right tactics.
“Sell me this pen” is also commonly used in marketing or advertising interviews, as the same level of persuasion is often required in these fields. So, if you’re looking for a related role, be prepared to sell that pen.
What should your response look like? Next, let’s cover a few effective ways to answer, with examples.
7 ways to answer this question effectively
When going into an interview, you have to be prepared for the hardest questions, just in case. You never really know what’s coming, which is probably the most nerve-racking part of the experience.
But preparing to sell someone a pen is a great way to prepare for any sales-related question you will be asked, including general questions about your approach or how you’ve landed big sales in the past. Think about your sales philosophy and be ready to explain why it works.
When preparing for “sell me this pen,” here are seven ways to answer the right way.
1. Focus on the customer’s needs
Whether it’s an interview for a sales or marketing position, it’s always crucial to focus on the customer. Get into their head and think about what they need and desire most. Step out of the interview, away from focusing on yourself and how you’re coming across, and enter the world of the person on the other end of your pitch.
Asking these questions helps you understand what kind of sales approach will get them to reach the desired outcome—in this case, buying the pen.
It may be a good idea to ask a few initial questions to the customer (or interviewer), sit back, and just listen. An effective salesperson knows how to show customers that how they feel matters.
2. Respond with questions
A great way to accomplish the above task of focusing on needs is to turn things around and directly ask the customer what their needs are. Start by saying something like:
“Help me get to know you. When do you use a pen throughout the day? What do you use it for? What most annoys you about the pens you use?”
Asking these questions sets you up to address the issues faced by the customer right away.
When you’re done pitching, have addressed the main pain points, and are focusing on the sale, ask the customer something like:
“What is still standing in your way of buying this pen?”
This is a direct way to show the customer that you care about their concerns while giving you the opportunity to address any lingering hang-ups.
3. Talk about the positive features, eventually
Many candidates immediately turn to the tactic of describing the pen’s best features and why it’s so amazing. It’s shiny, it has a satisfying click, it’s easy to write with, it never smudges.
But, jumping into these details will miss applying them to the customer’s needs. As entrepreneur and CEO of CloudStrike Ventures Jeff Wiener points out in his article on the topic, “You sell the pen by not selling the pen. Literally, the last thing you do when trying to sell the pen is start by explaining how fantastic the pen is.”
Instead, frame the features in a way that reflects what the customer needs, what they care about. Try something like this:
“I bet you have to jot down lots of notes throughout the day. You simply don’t have time to deal with smudges that get in the way of your boss deciphering the messiness. You need a pen that will absolutely never do that.”
In this way, you’re highlighting a positive feature of the pen only in relation to what you know the customer needs.
4. Be unique
Even the most effective salespeople can get a lot of pushback from skeptical customers. Remember that these are real people who are used to being sold to in all the age-old ways.
Show the interviewer that you recognize these challenges and push against the norm. Offer something unique and creative in your response, something that you know no other candidate will say.
A few outside-the-box examples could be:
“Look, I’m not going to pretend like there aren’t other good pens out there. You have options. But I’m going to level with you – those pens simply won’t look as good in your jacket pocket.”
“When was the last time you felt a real connection to your pen? You want a writing utensil that feels like it’s always been a part of you.”
“The object in front of you is more than just a pen. It’s a tactile representation of you and your business. How do you want to leave your mark?”
Think about ways to shock the customer or make them laugh. Be different. Be likable. Use the great qualities you know you have to craft a response that will inspire and excite.
5. Be confident
Now is the time to get in touch with your inner self-love and exude confidence without shame. Effective salespeople do not back down when they get an initial “no” or “I don’t think so.” They listen and keep trying, adapting to the individual in front of them.
This is why selling and marketing take a lot of confidence. You have to appear certain that a product will meet the needs of this person. You also have to know the features inside and out.
Take a few moments after the interviewer asks you to sell them the pen so you can examine it and collect your thoughts. Speaking too quickly doesn’t always portray confidence, and in fact, sometimes it shows the opposite. Take a deep breath if you need to. Really take in their responses to all your follow-up questions and process them before responding.
Taking time to nod, affirm, and think helps you show the interviewer that you are considering these things deeply, and it will give you plenty of time to craft the right response with a confident and collected tone.
6. Make it seem like a no-brainer
Another effective sales tactic is to act like the customer already knows the right answer. After focusing on their needs and how the pen will solve their biggest pain points, act confident that there is no other solution that will solve their specific problem.
When you act sure of yourself, the customer will in turn act more certain. As any good salesperson knows, the customer needs to feel like it was their own decision, and they need to feel confident in that decision. It’s up to you to foster that confidence and assuredness with your own words and actions.
Try saying something like the following to sum up your conversation and get them to buy:
“You already know there’s really only one way to solve your issue, and that is buying this pen.”
7. Create urgency
It’s also effective to convince the customer that they have to act now, otherwise the opportunity will be gone forever. Include a special offer or time-sensitive deal in the pitch so they have to act fast. For example:
“I know how important cost is to you when comparing pens. Because you’re a first-time customer, I’m going to pull some strings and offer you a 25 percent discount on this pen, but only if you buy it right now.”
Selling a pen may seem like a pointless task in an interview. But being convincing about something so simple can show your potential boss just how creative and confident you are.
Whatever your approach, no matter what you end up saying in the moment, be convincing. If you learn nothing else from this post, remember to be confident, even if you have no idea what you’re talking about.