Sell me this pen. Possibly the best sales one-liner in history. Haven’t heard it before?

Coined by Jordan Belfort, a.k.a. the Wolf of Wall Street, I suggest you block out two hours of your day to watch one of the best sales movies of all time. Don’t like movies? Read his book.

In the last 10 years, I have seen many sales leaders use this question as part of their interview process to whittle out the can-dos from the can-nots.

Why Ask a Sales Candidate to "Sell Me This Pen"?

There are three standard responses to this question, which illustrate the three selling styles typically used by salespeople.

The first is known as value-added selling, where a candidate attempts to create interest by highlighting the various features of the product which make it desirable.

  • “This pen is gold -- that positions you as a person of value to your peers.”
  • “This pen has refillable ink cartridges, so you'll never need to buy a new one.”
  • “Compared to other pens, this pen is very smooth and comfortable to hold.”

The majority of people without selling experience will utilize this method. Even those who have received thorough training may succumb to the pressure of an interview and lead with comments along these lines.

The problem with value-based selling is that you show zero knowledge of what the buyer feels is important to them and thus are simply shooting in the dark with your assertions of value.

The next evolution in this method is solution based selling -- where a candidate successfully asks me questions about what I look for in a pen and if I have any problems with my current one. They can then build the case that this pen will solve my needs.

  • “What is the most important thing for you when it comes to buying a pen?”
  • “What color pen are you in the market for?”
  • “What were the strengths and weaknesses of the last pen you owned?”

Candidates with an enterprise sales background normally demonstrate a strength in this area. However, many of them still hit a roadblock when the questions they ask lead to a conclusion the customer needs a product which the seller doesn’t have, i.e. a red pen instead of a black one. Furthermore, a buyer simply may not be willing to talk about their problems to someone they don’t know.

This is why it is important to find reps who demonstrate the third technique -- problem creation. Instead of asking open questions, they establish a clear "ladder" for buyers to follow using questions which place the prospect in a mental state where they begin to feel a problem they didn’t originally realize they had. Ultimately, the buyer arrives at a pre-set conclusion which the sales representative has orchestrated. This outcome is a rarity -- a rep who can successfully use the problem creation method is a one in a million find.

The Best Answer to "Sell Me This Pen" I've Ever Heard

Given that a vast majority of the sales community knows this example, I found initially that when I brought it up in interviews it drew a number of cliché or pre-prepared responses.

I came up with the idea to instead start bringing a pair of sunglasses to my interviews, which I would place next to my notepad and the candidate's resume as they presented.

At one stage in the interview -- normally toward the end -- I would place my iPhone carefully on the middle of the table and say, "Sell me these sunglasses."

I would get a number of responses, each falling into one of two buckets:

  • Feature-based selling: The candidate lists of a bunch of exciting features that the sunglasses have.
  • Solution-based selling: The candidate asks me questions about my daily life to see if the product could potentially solve any of these for me, such as, "Do you have trouble seeing while driving?" or "Do you like to go to the beach?"

After 34 interviews, I found the unicorn.

The candidate sat there in silence and didn't ask any questions. Seeing the iPhone, they simply turned on the flashlight (which can be done without knowing the passcode on the latest versions), and said, "How would you like some sunglasses now?"

After 34 people failing before them, they went on to be the highest performer and my most loyal employee.

The moral of the story is that good sales people often solve problems but the best are able to create and then solve them.

I would love to hear about your experience below. If you are hiring, please try this and send me your feedback!

Editor's note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn and is republished here with permission.

Originally published Apr 11, 2017 8:30:00 AM, updated May 17 2017


Sales Hiring