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Sell Me This Pen: How to Approach This Tricky Interview Question

February 25, 2021

sell me this pen

What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when asked, "sell me this pen?”

Many of you would remember this question from Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street when Leonardo DiCaprio, playing Jordan Belfort (a 1990s penny stockbroker), asks some salespeople at a conference to sell him a pen. 

Due to the movie’s massive success, "sell me this pen" caught salespeople’s attention rapidly. Sales professionals would stay glued to their chairs, waiting to jump off with a mind-boggling response. However, it didn't take long before it became a cliche as quickly as it became a favorite.

What everyone forgot was the main idea behind the question, making it sound outdated. Calling it a "question" is the first big mistake you could make. Although inspired by the movie, it’s a concept that’s been around for many years in the sales coaching domain.

"Sell me this pen" is a trick question that belongs to a well-known "sell me this" family, commonly asked during sales job interviews. Here, a pen is just another object for sale. No matter how good it is, it certainly wouldn't answer your question if you focus on only the pen’s features. Let’s discuss how selling a pen goes beyond a convincing pitch. 

The concept of “sell me this pen”

As explained above, “sell me this pen” is a popular job interview question, mainly used in a sales interview. Before we continue looking for the correct answer, let's learn more about its basic concept using an example salesperson, Adam, interviewing for a sales job.

A hiring manager gives Adam a pen and asks him to sell the pen. Adam tries to find an answer that the interviewer wants. He discusses how durable it is, what material it's made of, how smoothly it works, and so on. The hiring manager intervenes from time to time and questions everything Adam mentions about the pen’s features. Adam couldn’t keep up with the interviewer's pace and soon gives in.

The interviewer wanted to test Adam's approach to the question. The interviewer could have replaced the pen with something else like a pencil or an apple. Regardless of the type of object, the approach determines if you answer it correctly. 

“Sell me this pen” tests sales skills and the ability to understand customers’ needs before making a sales pitch. What if someone you want to sell a pen to doesn't use a pen at all? What if they use a ballpoint pen, but you’re selling a gel pen? How would you find out what the pen’s buyer wants from it? How will it benefit them?

"Sell me this pen" isn’t a big puzzle to solve. It's a simple question that’s asked in a twisted way to see if your approach can turn the tables. It helps the end person assess how you think and act in a situation, dodge or face it, and how you look at it from a customer’s perspective.

How to answer “sell me this pen” in an interview

You could probably type “sell me this pen” on Google and get many answers to it. The next time someone asks you to sell them a pen, you should be ready with the perfect solution. But do you think it’ll be the right way to approach it, following the good old “copy and paste” method? Even if you get the best answer on the web, would you have the confidence to share your thoughts on the concept?

Let’s examine this a bit more. The interviewer would instantly know if you shoot a one-liner like this one from the movie:

Jordan: Brad, sell me this pen.

Brad: Could you do me a favor? Why don’t you write down your name on that napkin for me?

Jordan: I don’t have a pen

Brad: Exactly! Supply and demand.

This little exchange might sound pretty cool and on point, but it’s a go-to line for every respondent, making it a thorough cliche. It can still give you a little idea of going about this question and following the first step to understand your buyer's specific needs. 

Here are a few simple steps to follow to ensure you respond to this question with the right approach and the right attitude:

Treat it as a real-life situation

When asked to sell the pen, most of our thoughts revolve around finding the right answer. We treat it as a question and not a real-life situation. If you look closely, it’s a real-life sales situation in the form of a problem. 

Suppose you’re assigned a sales task to sell a new line of pens. How would you go about selling them? Do you know your potential customers? Where they exist, what their likes and dislikes are, as well as their needs and preferences? 

Think of a sales strategy for both existing and new customers. It would help to have a fresh perspective when met with such questions, which helps shape your approach to a situation. If you address it the right way, you won’t crack only this one, but several similar problems.           

Ask before you tell

Whenever it comes to a question, our first instinct is to finish it off with a bang. It may work with informal conversations, like talking to friends but demands a different outlook in a business environment. 

When you encounter a tricky question like this, the first thing you need to do is learn more about your buyer. Ask them a few more questions to know why they use a pen, when they use it, and what kind of pen they use. Assess and understand your buyer’s needs. 

You can’t efficiently sell something without knowing your potential customer. To figure out if a buyer’s interested in your product, you need to introspect. Think of the last time you tried to sell something, maybe in a previous job. What did you learn about your buyers? Connect it with a qualifying question and find out what exactly they need. 

A good salesperson always takes the buyer-first approach, which involves understanding:

  • What do they want?
  • Why do they need it?
  • When do they need it?
  • Where do they use it?
  • How do they use it?

Keep the right attitude

Attitude matters! Having the right attitude in this environment is an essential skill for a salesperson. Interviewers assess this quality at all points during the interview process because they need someone with that attitude and confidence to crack deals. They need someone who’s a problem solver and wise and quick at analyzing a situation and countering objections. 

A sale requires speedy analysis, but it’s also a slow and gradual process. You can’t just tell something like how a pen writes, that it has blue ink, and sell it. You need to be patient with your buyer throughout the customer journey. Even if you make a sales pitch, it doesn’t mean you’ve sold the pen. Thus, keeping the right attitude is essential.

If you get asked this question in an interview, all you need to do is stay calm and listen carefully. Make eye contact with your interviewer and speak confidently. Follow steps one and two before you give out any answers. And make sure you ask to learn more about the buyer.

Follow sales best practices

It’s easy to get lost in a sales situation that seems complicated and requires an in-depth understanding. Be it an interview or a real-life situation, following sales best practices always come in handy to rescue you from a complex sales process. Some of these practices to follow are:

  • Be positive. Learn to be a problem-solver with a positive outlook no matter how difficult the situation. Positivity gives you the enthusiasm and motivation to handle challenges.
  • Learn to skim your words. You can endlessly go on about describing the features of the pen without making any real sense or bringing out the actual value of your product. Learn to summarize your answers and pitches using the right mix of power and emotion.
  • Be present. All of your senses should function harmoniously, especially when listening to the questions. Actively listen to the end-person and slowly process the information to avoid getting lost in translation from the speaker’s words to your interpretation.
  • Use sales negotiation. Follow sales negotiation techniques to communicate effectively during a bargaining conversation to ensure both parties are equally involved and mutually benefit from the negotiation.
  • Provide closure. Sales reps often forget to close a pitch. If you’re selling a pen using the best sales pitch possible, describing the unique selling points (USPs), features of the product, and you explain everything but don’t close your speech, all your efforts will be in vain. You need to satisfy your customers, and that satisfaction comes from providing closure.

There’s no right or wrong answer

How you answer “sell me this pen” depends entirely on your judgment. To a question with several answers, we can’t filter out the opinions trying to look for the right one. The answer to this question knows no boundaries, and the possibilities are infinite. As long as there are potential needs, there’ll be a solution to those needs.  

A quick tip is not to get trapped into the best answer bait. It’s not too difficult to list down a few notable answers to get you going and killing an interview process, but what if you come up with a problem in a real-life sales situation? Would just an answer work? 

Consider “sell me this pen” as an opportunity to develop a realistic approach to selling. You answer in a few words, but it gives you a lot to learn. “Sell me this pen” is a powerhouse of learning about your buyers and the right sales techniques to use and developing sales skills and the right attitude to deal with anything that comes your way.

Now that you’ve learned what an interviewer might be looking for in a salesperson, find out if your future workplace can motivate you with these sales motivation techniques.

sales strategy
Boost your sales performance

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sales strategy
Boost your sales performance

Learn how to build a sales strategy to leverage your sales skills and improve your sales process.

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