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“Sell me this pen” is arguably the most well known sales one-liner in history. It’s a favourite for sales job interviews and there’s a reason for that …. it’s a really effective way pf assessing the sales approach of each candidate and providing a means of comparing their relative strengths and weaknesses. The response you get to the request can give real insight into how, and how well an individual might sell for you.

Why Ask a Sales Candidate to “Sell Me This Pen”?

Over the last 30+ years, I have seen many sales leaders use this technique to whittle out the “can-dos” from the “can-nots.” I’ve used it myself, and I’ve been on the receiving end too! typically, there are three common responses that it generates, each of which demonstrates one of the three selling styles typically used by salespeople.

The Value-Added Approach

The first of the three is known as value based selling, where a candidate attempts to create interest by highlighting the various features of the product that make it desirable. They may say something like:

“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 use this method. That makes sense; it’s probably the most straightforward. But that’s not to say that everyone who takes this route is inexperienced. Even those who have received thorough sales 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. You’re making blind inferences with your assertions of value. To put it bluntly, you’re shooting in the dark. If you’re lucky, one of your guesses will stick, but this approach just doesn’t cut it in one of my interviews.

The Solution-Based Approach

The next evolution in this method is solution selling. This is when a candidate successfully asks me questions about what I look for in a pen and if I have any problems with my current one. Then, they 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 colour 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 where the customer needs a solution they can’t offer.

For instance, you can find out a customer is in the market for a pen, but they may need a red one when you’re only selling black. Plus, there’s no guarantee a buyer will keep answering your questions. They might not even have any interest in talking about their problems with someone they don’t know.

The solution-based approach is better than the value-added one, but there’s still a good chance it’ll take you nowhere. That’s why I always look for sales people who demonstrate the third technique.

The Problem-Creation Approach

Problem creation; without question the best way to “sell me this pen.”

Instead of asking generic open questions, sales people who use this tactic establish a clear “ladder” for buyers to follow using questions which make them concerned about problems they didn’t even know about in the first place.

With this approach, the buyer arrives at a pre-set conclusion which the sales person has orchestrated. This is the best possible outcome. Any sales person who can successfully take this route has the kind of grip on the sales process every hiring manager wants to see.

That being said, this outcome is a rarity. People who can successfully use the problem creation method aren’t easy to come by.

If you’d like to learn more effective ways to sell any pen, then our range of sales training options could help.

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