Selling a Pen (and Yourself) in an Interview: Outdated Tactic or Timeless Question?

A question was raised in one of my LinkedIn groups recently that got me and other members thinking about the tactics used by hiring managers during the interview process. The question: If you were interviewing for a sales job and the sales manager said “sell me this pen,” how would you respond?

The feedback from the group was varied. Some offered recommended responses to the actual question. Others thought it was a good question. Still others were indignant that such a question would be asked by today’s interviewers.

For my part, I am on the side of the detractors. This is a question I would never ask when screening candidates. In fact, if a client indicates to me that they want this question asked, I would push back to find out what they hope to determine by doing so. Nine times out of 10, they want to hear the candidate’s response – not gain a better understanding of skills and selling abilities.

To ascertain that, a more effective approach is a request: “Walk me through the steps you would take to sell our product.”

However, more than one respondent disagreed with me. Many felt that this simple question separates candidates into two groups: Those who do nothing but blindly pitch and those who take the time to understand their prospect’s buying motives so they can properly qualify and direct the sales process.

“This is one of the most basic of interview questions for sales reps, and the answer reveals so much about your previous training, your understanding of the sales process, and ultimately about what kind of sales rep you are,” said one respondent.

Conversely, many were appalled by the idea of asking such a question for multiple reasons. Noted one respondent: “I would be taken back by that request. It is a red flag, old school and shows the inexperience of the interviewer…Furthermore I would want to end the interview as politely and tactfully as possible.”

To me, asking candidates to sell a pen is similar to wearing a clown suit during an interview to see if they can keep a straight face in front of a client or prospect. It’s a setup rather than a true evaluation of skills, especially since the days of hardcore, transactional “burn and churn” selling are long gone.