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Written by Karl KahlerKarl Kahler

Sell me this pen: How to answer one of the toughest interview questions

13 min read
Sell me this pen: How to answer one of the toughest interview questions
Artwork by:Antonina Kasyanikova
“Sell me this pen” has become a common interview question that can fill a candidate with dread. This blog will fill you in on what an employer is looking for and how you can ace the answer to this question.

In job interviews, hiring managers sometimes throw candidates a curve ball by handing them a writing instrument and saying, “Sell me this pen.” 

If you’re looking for a job in sales, it’s a good idea to be prepared for this question. There are good approaches and bad approaches to this question and if your interviewer asks it, your response could be a game winner or a deal-breaker.

In this blog we’ll explore some possible responses and cover the following topics:

  • What NOT to do when asked to sell a pen
  • How to structure the beginning, middle and end of your response
  • Examples of great answers to “sell me this pen”

How to respond to “sell me this pen”

If an interviewer can get a good sense of your personality and motivation from a single question, why wouldn’t they ask it? Believe it or not, “sell me this pen” is not as much of a brain-bender as it seems. By following the tips below, you’ll be prepared to sell your heart out and show the employer what you’re made of.

1. Do not decline to answer.

You may find the question objectionable, as you are probably not a pen salesman. You might be tempted to say, “I don’t sell pens, I sell real estate.” You might be tempted to pass on the question, saying, “I don’t really feel comfortable trying to stage a demonstration of my sales skills right now.” 

Neither of these is a good reply. Interviewers ask this question for a reason, and they expect an answer. They want to see if you’re comfortable in your salesman skin pitching a product. They want to see what approach you take, and how much you focus on the pen vs. how much you focus on the potential buyer.

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2. Act like you love this question.

You may actually dread a question like this, but you will win points if you embrace it enthusiastically. If you’re in sales, you have to love selling, so your eyes should light up at the prospect of doing what you’re good at.

If you look blindsided and stressed, saying, “Oh, boy,” taking a deep breath and running your hands through your hair, you’ll be sending signals that the prospect of selling something makes you uncomfortable. This is not encouraging to a company looking for a salesperson. 

When you hear this question, be prepared to launch happily, confidently and comfortably into your response.

3. Ask questions about the client’s needs.

Let’s ask Jordan Belfort, the inspiration for The Wolf of Wall Street, how he would answer this difficult question. Belfort served 22 months in prison for fraud, and he’s probably never sold a pen, but there’s no question he’s an ace salesman. Here’s a video in which Piers Morgan asks Belfort to sell him a pen:

Belfort says: “ ‘How long have you been in the market for a pen? … And what type of pen do you typically use when you use a pen?’ … The idea here is that when you’re selling something, you need to be asking questions first, to find out what their needs are.

The biggest mistake in the world is that salesmen say, ‘This is the best pen in the world, it writes upside down, it defies gravity’ – if you do that, you sound like a moron, basically….

I don’t want to sell a pen to someone who doesn’t need a pen. So the first thing you do is ask questions. … Otherwise, you’re basically jamming a pen down someone’s throat.”

This is good advice because it focuses on the customer’s needs. Your need may be to sell a pen, but the customer is not worried about your needs. 

4. Remember to pivot from questions to statements.

When selling a pen, at some point you have to sell the pen. So once you’ve done your due diligence by feeling out the client on his or her needs, you need to transition to making statements about the product you have for sale. 

Belfort rightly emphasizes that you shouldn’t launch straight into a description of the pen. But once you’ve learned more about the client’s needs and wants, you should be well-versed in the features of the pens you sell. 

You may want to mention its sleek, sophisticated look, its refillable cartridges, the lightweight size, how easily the ink flows, etc. Again, don’t lead with this, but you need to be prepared to describe the excellent features of the product you’re selling.

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5. Offer the client something for free.

It might seem counterintuitive to give away something you’re trying to sell, but it can also be an excellent sales technique. There’s a reason Baskin Robbins gives away free samples – there’s no obligation, but it makes people want more.

Toward the end of your sales pitch, offer the interviewer the pen and say that he or she is welcome to use it for a week for free. After that, you’ll come back and see if the pen has met the client’s needs. If it hasn’t, you’ll be prepared to offer a range of other pens. Or if it has, you’ll be happy to close the sale. 

Who doesn’t like getting something for free? This is the pen salesman version of “Try it before you buy it.”

6. Be prepared for refusals.

Your interviewer may choose to take a hard-nosed tack, saying, “I don’t need a pen,” “I don’t want a pen,” “I can’t afford pens like that.”

Dealing with objections effectively are part and parcel of good sales tactics. Sometimes people will want something without needing it. Sometimes they don’t want it because they don’t know how much they need it. And maybe with a little more information about your price structure, they’ll find they can afford it after all.

Sometimes clients may like what you’re selling, but they just don’t like the color or the design. That’s why it’s always good if you can offer similar options in different styles.

But when all is said and done, if a client doesn’t want to buy the product you’re selling, you also need to be prepared to take no for an answer. But maybe the person who doesn’t want the pen could still be useful for generating leads to colleagues who might.

7. If possible, close the sale. 

If your sales pitch hasn’t gone badly, you may have a person sitting in front of you who’s actually prepared to buy the pen. If so, don’t forget the crucial step of closing the sale. Don’t say, “OK, let me get back to you in a week.” Say, “Can I go ahead and write up a bill of sale?” 

Or, “By the way, these pens also make excellent gifts. Could I offer you a few of these pens that you could give away as Christmas presents to your executive staff?”

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Good ‘Sell me this pen’ responses 

Here are some examples of good answers to the “Sell me this pen” challenge.

“How often do you use pens? When’s the last time you used one? Don’t you use a pen pretty much every day?”

“Do you prefer blue ink, black ink? Or maybe even green or red?”

“Have you ever noticed that a cheap pen isn’t as easy to use, the ink doesn’t flow as easily, the writing doesn’t look as good, and you never know when they’re going to run out of ink?”

“Have you ever used a really nice pen, which is both really attractive and has the right heft in your hand? And the ink flows easily, and looks good on the page? Plus the pen just looks really sophisticated?” 

“Have you ever noticed that CEOs, executives and other powerful people tend to have really nice pens?” 

“Have you ever needed to write something, and when you looked at all the pens you had, you didn’t like any of them?”

Bad ‘Sell me this pen’ responses 

And here are some examples of answers to the “Sell me this pen” question that you might want to avoid.

“I don’t sell pens. I’d rather not participate in this exercise.”

“This is the most beautiful, functional pen ever, with its lovely design and ground-breaking features.”

“If you use a cheap Bic pen, you look like a loser. But you’ll look like a big shot if you use this pen.”

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A sample ‘Sell me this pen’ interview

Interviewer: Sell me this pen.

You: What are you looking for in a pen? 

Interviewer: I don’t know, I’ve got a few.

You: Do you love your pens? And do you have that one go-to pen that you use on important occasions because you know it writes well and looks great?

Interviewer: Not really. Sometimes I carry a couple of pens in case the first one stops writing.

You: What do you use a pen for? Do you jot down notes during a meeting or phone call? Do you sometimes use a pen to sign important documents or contracts, or even letters or Christmas cards?

Interviewer: I’ve done all the above.

You: And if you use a pen in front of others, do the optics matter to you? Would you prefer to use the kind of pen used by well-to-do people, or will just any old pen do?

Interviewer: I have to admit a nice-looking pen is good to have. But the utility is all-important – it has to work.

You: Perfect. The thing about nice pens is they not only look good, but they write great. This pen right here is one of our newer models, it has some gold plating on top of sterling silver, but it’s not all that heavy, and it writes like a dream. Take it, find a piece of paper on your desk and sign your name. You don’t have to scribble on a piece of scratch paper first to see if the ink comes out – I guarantee you the ink will come out. 

Interviewer: Yeah, it writes pretty nice.

You: And it’s not “expensive” – it’s “valuable.” You can afford this pen, and you can carry it with you everywhere. Refillable cartridges will make sure you never run out of ink.   

Interviewer: I don’t know, I usually try to sleep on it before making a purchase. 

You: Tell you what. Keep the pen a week, use it every day, see if it disappoints you. I’ll come back next Tuesday, and if you don’t like it, I’ll take it away. If you do like it, but you’d like to see some other options, I’ll bring you some other options. But this pen is yours to use for free for a week, no obligation. 

Interviewer: Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse.

Best of luck in crafting your own responses to the “Sell me this pen” challenge. As a salesperson, your greatest asset is the force of your personality, so use it for all it’s worth. Be different, be interesting, be humorous, be prepared.

And above all, sell that pen!

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Key takeaways

  • Sell me this pen is a classic sales interview question and one that shouldn’t be avoided.
  • Never ask to pass on the question – instead respond with interest and enthusiasm.
  • Make sure to ask questions about the clients needs before trying to make the sale.
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