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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Why Hiring Up Pays Off

SteveJobs

Building a high performing team is the #1 responsibility of all leaders.  It requires vision, skill, intuition, conviction and a clear understanding of the company’s objective and purpose.  It also requires courage.

Early in my career I received some hiring advice that was worth its weight in gold from my boss.  She said “hire people you wouldn’t mind working for in the future.” I have lived by this advice throughout my career and it has served me well.  Here are the two major take-aways from living this hiring philosophy:

  1. Your focus should be the candidates capacity, and desire, to learn new things and not based solely on what they know today.  To a large extent your focus should be on their attitude not their aptitude.  With the right abilities, the proper does of desire, and some passion, any one can accomplish anything.
  2. The circle of life is more than just a famous line from the movie Lion King.  Work in a management or leadership role long enough and you’ll experience people coming and going, and moving up and down.  I see it as a blessing that I have been able to provide leadership to many who have risen in the ranks, some even faster than I.  Being able to develop a new generation of leaders is something I’m most proud of.

By hiring up, you demonstrate confidence as a leader.  We’ve all seen leaders (I use this term loosely) who hire a warm body.  A robot.  Someone willing, and able, to take orders but not capable of having an individual point of view.  And then there are those leaders who everyone else wants to work for.  These are the people who hire up.  They look for those that are smarter than they are, have more ideas than they do, and who see the world through a different lense.

Assembling a team of talent that surpasses your own, demonstrates your leadership strength. I’d much prefer to be surrounded by people smarter than me than to be the only one with any answers.  There’s great truth to the saying, “if you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” Build a team that can teach you as much as you teach them.  A team that can generate ideas faster than you can on your own.  A team that is willing to take on any issue, problem, or challenge because they know they have a better chance of winning by leveraging their collective brilliance versus trying to win with a single idea from just one person.  Hire really smart people and then get out of their way. I think Steve Jobs was onto something here.

Hire up.

 

 

Best Practices…Who Says?

Best Practice

Life is full of best practices.  These are the things we should all be doing because they worked for someone else.  We get caught up in copying the P90X workout, or the Zappos marketing campaign, or the Salesforce.com sales presentation, or even parenting based upon the sage advice of best practice preachers. For those with children, do you remember the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting?; it’s a best practice book! But what are best practices?

The most common definition I could find on the Internet says best practices are commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or most effective.  But by whom?  Who says they work? Where did they work?  When?  What kind of business did they work in?

I have nothing against best practices in general.  However, when organizations take an approach that proudly states they will deploy best practices to accomplish their objectives, I must admit…it does make me a bit curious.

My experience has taught me that an organization’s culture trumps even the best of best practices.  I’ve spent 13 years of my career in the payroll and human resource outsourcing space.  Several times I’ve attempted to deploy what was considered a best practice at one firm into another only to see it fail due to a cultural difference.  Like hiring one of your competitors top sales people only to find they were unable to be as successful selling in your company, implementing best practices from one place to another doesn’t always work either.  Top sales people many times excel in environments where they are provided with autonomy and the latitude to get a deal done.  Placing that same sales person in a company that requires their managers sign-off on everything they do is a certain recipe for failure both for the sales person, the company, and of course the customer.

Before thinking about copying a best practice be honest with yourself and your team.  There’s a difference between being capable of doing something versus being able.  Having the ability to change is quite different from having the capability of changing.  Most of us are capable of a lot more than we’re doing today.  The reason we’re not doing more is because we’re unable to…unable to cross the chasm…unable to make the change…unable to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

We should always be interested in, and on the lookout for best practices.  Just be sure to consider how far you’re willing to go to implement those changes.  How much change can you endure in order to make the needed change?  The truth is, for best practices to work, it’s entirely up to you.  It’s not about the practice itself but about how you and your organization can execute that practice that makes it work…that makes it a best practice.