For many, it was made famous by the end scene of the Wolf of Wall Street. But the “Sell Me This Pen” interview question has actually been around for quite a while. In fact, we wrote about it on this very website back in 2010, but it is the type of topic that is worth discussing again.
This question is still regularly used in interviews for sales and marketing jobs. It’s not always a pen, either. In some cases it is a stapler, a chair, or a piece of paper. But most of the time it is a pen, and if you want to successfully sell a pen to the interviewer, you have to take the right approach.
What Are The Wrong Ways to Sell Them a Pen?
They have an example answer earlier in the movie, but at the end of the Wolf of Wall Street, two attendees attempt to answer the question, and they do so unsuccessfully.
What do they do wrong?
Their biggest mistake is that they approach the problem by telling someone about the pen’s features. “It’s a nice pen.” “It is shiny.” “It is has blue ink.” These features may be what make the pen useful, but they are boring. They do not get someone interested in making a purchase, especially for something as bland as a pen.
Similarly, you can’t tell people how they are going to feel. It’s not uncommon for your first instinct to be “you will love this pen.” The reason is that no one likes being told how to feel. They want to feel that way themselves. No one can tell you “be happy” and suddenly you’re happy. Life doesn’t work that way.
How to Answer a “Sell Me This Pen” Question:
So how should you answer? Earlier in Wolf of Wall Street there was a great scene that showed the basics of answering this question:
- Jordan Belfort: Sell me this pen.
- Brad: Write me your name on this napkin.
- Jordan Belfort: I can’t, I don’t have a pen.
- Brad: There you go, it’s a matter of supply and demand.
Now, this isn’t the perfect answer. There is no reason for him to write his name on the napkin, for example. Interestingly, the actual Jordan Belfort that the movie is based off gives a different answer:
“The real answer is, before I’m even going to sell a pen to anybody, I need to know about the person, I want to know what their needs are, what kind of pens do they use, do they use a pen? How often do they use a pen? Do they like to use a pen formally, to sign things, or use it in their everyday life? The first idea is that when you say ‘Sell me this pen,’ I want to hear [the salesman] ask me a question.”
Yet this still represents only one approach. In the end, your goal is to find a way to appeal to the person’s needs. Make them think that they want a pen. The example in our previous article is one that would still work today:
“One applicant used a more interactive approach. He took a check out of his pocket, wrote out a $100 check, kept the name blank, handed the check to the interviewer and said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if you had a pen right now?”
But what about some other ideas?
Think about perhaps addressing the emotional value of the pen.
Imagine the following conversation:
- You: “How many checks would you say you write in a month?”
- Sales Boss: “At least 30.”
- You: “Okay, that’s 30 checks a month, about 360 checks a year. And do you find yourself reaching for the nearest pen you can find?”
- Sales Boss: “Yeah.”
- You: “Okay, wouldn’t it be great if you had one pen, full of ink, that you could use consistently with each and every check? You keep reaching for all of these different pens, and who knows who they even belong to. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one pen that was just yours? A pen that you could use for every check, every contract, and every signature?”
There, you’re appealing to the person’s sense of ownership. You’re asking them a question about what they do and who they are – a question that presumably you know they’ll answer with a high number – and you’re using it to get them talking and show them how valuable a pen is, then showing them the emotional value of having only one pen.
Perhaps you’d like to take a different approach. You can try with humor. If the pen is expensive and the interviewer hands it to you, you can look at it confused and say:
- You: “Is this your pen?”
- Sales Boss: “Yes.”
- You: “Do you want it back?”
- Sales Boss: “Yes.”
- You: “That will be $3.”
This type of answer isn’t going to wow them quite like the check, but it forces them to realize that you recognize opportunities when they are there.
It’s okay to be inventive. Imagine the interviewer hands you the pen and you put the pen in your pocket and say nothing. The interviewer will probably prompt you, like “are you going to try to sell me the pen?” and you can respond with something such as: “This pen? This is my favorite pen and the only one I have” and see where the conversation takes you.
There are many different strategies available, but the key is to move away from the description of the pen, and look for a way to make the person feel like they need it, whether it’s through emotional attachment, value, or something more clever. Like many interview questions, there is more than one answer. But find that inventive strategy and your interviewer will be quick to hire you.