Sell Me This Pen. The Interview Question All Sales People Should Expect.

picture-of-quill-pen-ink-pot

Sell me this pen.  Pitch me as you would a prospect.  How would you sell our product if I was a buyer? Sound familiar? These questions, and more like them, are asked in most sales interviews. But should they be? If you’re the candidate being interviewed should you take the bait and answer? Or is there another way to respond that better showcases your critical thinking skills?

This question poses significant risk to the candidate.  Sure, you may have a perfect reply and wow the interviewer, however, there’s also a chance this question is a trap. Answer it and you could be perceived incorrectly.  Don’t answer it and you risk rubbing the interviewer the wrong way.  The problem with this question is that it doesn’t provide you, the candidate, with enough information to form an intelligent response.  You know nothing about the pen, and even less about the buyer.  Many companies sell pens, payroll, financial services, insurance, consumer products, accounting services, etc., but not all their buyers are attracted to that company for the same reason.  Every buyer is on his or her own journey.  Without understanding the motivations and behaviors of a specific buyer, your best response provides nothing but entertainment value for the interviewer. So how can you reply in a way that demonstrates intelligence and thoughtfulness rather than appearing aloof?

If you’re the candidate being interviewed I propose a different reaction to this question.  Instead of answering I would look at the person interviewing me and say, “Before I can sell you anything I need to understand your needs as a buyer. What’s important to you and why? Have you made purchases like this before? What happened?”. Turn the “sell me the pen” question into a dialogue to learn about your buyer.

Taking the bait and trying to sell the pen is risky.  Is it a Bic pen?  A Cross? A Mont Blanc? Or is it a new digital smart pen? A buyer who needs a pen to write down a quick grocery list has different buying needs than a buyer who attends a Board meeting and needs to record in detail everything that takes place in that meeting.  One buyer may need something simple, quick, cheap.  Another buyer may need something more sophisticated and advanced. Do you know what kind of pen it is?  Do you know the buyer?

For those conducting the interview I’d suggest asking a different question.  I understand the insight you’re attempting to gain by asking this question.  I’ve built many sales teams from the ground up and never asked this question.  Instead, I ask the candidate to tell me how they would educate themselves on the product we sell and the buyers who purchase it. Asking this question provides insight into the candidates critical thinking skills versus pure stage performance.  In some cases you may be selling a commodity where critical thinking skills are less important.  However, if that’s your belief I’d challenge it. Commodities can only go so far. At some point you will need a value differentiator to grow your business, and that differentiator won’t be found or identified by a performer.  It will be identified by someone whose interactions with your buyers are thoughtful and curious.

As buyers become more educated, knowledgeable, and aware of other options, an employers goal should be to fill their business with thinkers, while a modern sales professional should be focused on working for a company that demonstrates its commitment to understanding the customer and aligning value to the need.  Strong critical thinking skills will be essential as we continue our progress to a knowledge based society.

So will you take the bait and answer the question?

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