3 Ways to Use "Sell Me This Pen" to Hire Sales Superstars

5 Apr 23

Sell me this pen is a quick but effective way to test a sales candidate's selling abilities. Here are three tips to use this timeless question when hiring.

The “sell me this pen” test is a classic go-to question for sales managers interviewing sales candidates, and it’s easy to see why. This one simple, industry-neutral example can quickly test whether a salesperson knows how to sell. Here are three ways to use this timeless question in your hiring process.

In the movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Leonardo DiCaprio plays a Wall Street fraudster who uses high-pressure sales tactics to fleece his clients. There’s a famous scene where one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s colleagues brags that he can sell anything. DiCaprio’s character hands him a pen and says, “Sell me this pen,” the colleague begins to stammer and fidget.

Next, DiCaprio gives the pen to someone he insists “can sell anything.” The man grabs the pen and asks Leonardo to write his name. When Leonardo responds that he can’t write his name because he doesn’t have a pen, the man hands the pen back to Belfort and replies, “Exactly, supply and demand.”

Was that good selling? Maybe for someone selling worthless penny stocks, but it comes across as manipulation to the rest of us. So what does good selling look like? And how can you find the sales rockstars you need for your team?

Here are three ways to use the pen test to identify skilled candidates in the hiring process.

3 Ways to Use Sell Me This Pen to Help You Hire Sales Superstars Graphics

Pen Test #1: Sales Approach

Most candidates flunk the pen test because they immediately want to “sell” the pen by talking about its features. “This pen can write upside down!” “The ink doesn’t smudge!” “This pen has a special grip that makes it more comfortable to hold!” And so on. “Sell me this pen” really should be a test of the candidate’s sales approach or philosophy.

When salespeople meet with a buyer, it is common to start thinking of solutions first. This is what's easy to sell, so it's natural that solutions are top of mind during a sales call. The pitfall of this approach is that it creates a “product-centric” discussion, not a “buyer-centric” discussion. Buyers are interested in discussing their problems – i.e., what they want. And the buyer may not be interested in your solution at this point.

Be wary of candidates launching into a feature dump without understanding their customers' needs. Also, be suspicious of candidates who try to be clever and use manipulative tactics like “this pen is in high demand, and I only have a few left in stock”. Instead, look for candidates who don’t skip the important relationship-building approach.

Pen Test #2: Consultative Selling Skills

At the core of consultative selling is a salesperson’s ability to ask thoughtful sales questions, particularly on the fly, as the sales conversation moves in unexpected directions. The pen test is an excellent way of assessing how well a candidate can think on their feet.

While pens may initially appear straightforward products, you should give the candidate credit for asking more complex questions. For example:

“Who’s responsible for buying office supplies at XYZ Corp?”

“How do you use pens in your business?”

“How are you currently managing your note-taking needs?”

“Why are you in the market for a new pen?”

“Tell me about the last pen you owned” What did you like about it? What didn’t you like about it?

“Do you have any other concerns?”

“How do these challenges impact your business?”

“Who else is impacted?”

“What does the ideal pen look like to you?”

“What’s important to you in a vendor?”

“What would it mean to you if you continue to use your old pen/don’t replace it?” How would that impact your business?”

“What would it mean to your company’s productivity if note-taking accuracy improved?”

The idea is to see how far the candidate can go with their questioning, even if some of the questions may appear unrealistic or too complex for a pen. This approach shows if the candidate has the essential skills to ask open-ended questions while learning key insights about what's important to the buyer. 

Pen Test #3: Advanced Selling Skills

If you are interviewing a candidate for an enterprise sales position, you can approach the "sell me this pen" test to determine if the candidate has advanced selling skills.

In addition to the questions discussed above, consider whether the candidate is asking in-depth questions about the (fictitious) company, its buying process, and key stakeholders. Is the candidate focusing their questions on the pen’s technical user or going up a level and exploring issues impacting key executives and other stakeholders?

Another area the candidate can discuss is the pen’s return on investment (ROI). Selling a complex solution with a long buying cycle often requires that the sales professional develop a compelling business case with a clear return on investment before the buyer will purchase. The candidate should have a basic understanding of the drivers behind ROI, such as increasing productivity, saving money, and improving efficiency (e.g., the pen’s quick-drying ink helps prevent smudging and errors).

Key Takeaways 

The "sell me this pen" question is a popular interview question for hiring salespeople because it is a simple yet effective way to assess the candidate's sales skills and the ability to think on their feet. The pen is a common item that everyone is familiar with, making it a great test case to evaluate several facets of the candidate's abilities. 

Great selling requires a consultative approach, asking thoughtful questions, and, for more complex selling situations, an understanding of how to create a compelling business case. The pen test provides a preview of how the candidate is able to ask the right questions, listen and understand their customers' needs then tailor their pitch accordingly.

Use these three approaches to quickly gauge a candidate’s selling skills during an interview, and how they react under pressure.

If you want to help your Sales Managers learn how to recruit and hire sales stars our High-Impact Sales Manager program is the answer. This program provides sales managers with the skills and practical tools to develop a systematic hiring process, conduct more effective interviews and hire the superstars needed for high-performing sales teams. Learn more here.

Interested in more insight about hiring Sales Managers and staffing your sales teams? Try these articles.

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