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

Aug 22, 2022 - updated Aug 22, 2022

3 mins

Sell me this pen: how to answer one of the toughest job interview questions
Aglaé Dancette

Fondateur, auteur, rédacteur @Word Shaper

The American entrepreneur Malcolm Forbes said, “If you have a job without any aggravations, you don’t have a job.” Usually, complications come up before you even get the job. The journey begins at the interview stage - when you get one - where the recruiters push candidates’ limits to differentiate between them. In the fields of sales or marketing, for sales rep or business developer positions, it’s not uncommon for the recruiter to test your ability to sell anything and everything. One exercise in particular that comes up time and time again is the “sell me this pen” test. So how do you handle it?

The principle of role-playing

While the “sell me this pen” exercise is one of the most classic and well-known in the recruitment process, it also reflects a trend of scenarios - hackathons, escape games, role-plays. Recruiters are becoming increasingly creative in their pursuit to discover the real potential that lies between the lines of a résumé and finding that rare gem.

What’s the goal behind this strategy? Firstly, these more or less unexpected situations are about assessing your ability to adapt when you’re unsettled. It’s a way for them to understand your personality, your pathways, your lines of thought, your coping mechanisms, your stress-management skills, your sense of humor, and even your creativity. In other words, in theory, there is no right or wrong answer for this type of question unless you clam up completely.

For example, during the Google recruitment process, candidates are asked to solve mathematical problems. Their actual answers don’t really matter, but the methods they use do: What is the logic behind their method? Do they start to lose focus? Do they remain as effective when faced with the unexpected?

With the same intention but in a different style, Elliott got a bit of a surprise during his second interview for an internship at eBay. The person in charge of recruitment asked him the following question: “In your opinion, how much of our annual turnover comes from the sales of cell phone cases?” Obviously, an exact figure right down to the last cent was not expected in return, but once again, the applicant’s reaction was being assessed.

The two most logical approaches to answering

We would all rather it were Leonardo DiCaprio issuing the famous order, “Sell me this pen,” as he did in that famous scene in The Wolf of Wall Street. However, here you are, face to face with a recruiter. Your armpits are sweaty and your professional future at stake. So much for a stress-free interview. There are generally two ways of responding and one will be more convincing than the other.

Describe the product

You’ve got the pen in front of you, you’ve looked at it, you’re describing it, and you’re trying to look convincing, but you quickly run out of inspiration and arguments. That’s the other famous scene from The Wolf of Wall Street, in which DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort successively interrupts four people who get bogged down in their response. Since there is nothing extraordinary about the pen, how do you avoid this?

Describe its features and the needs it fulfills

You must see beyond the pen, which is obviously just a pretext. You are being asked to play a role, so take it on. What would the ideal salesperson do in front of a customer? They would try to find out and understand exactly what their client is looking for, as well as what his or her needs are so they can offer them the most suitable product. What the recruiter is looking for is your ability to create desire, to show you’re listening, and to involve the customer in the sales process.

So, rather than starting your answer with an argument that will fall flat on its face, you could start by asking the person in front of you three questions. For example: How often will you need it? What did you particularly like about using your previous pen? Do you have any preferences about the system it uses, such as whether it’s ballpoint or rollerball? After gathering this information, you can then envision the pen that will meet your customer’s requirements perfectly and recommend it to them.

As DiCaprio sums it up later on in the film: “Supply and demand, the secret is to create urgency!”

The essentials

  • Keep smiling, even if you get flustered.
  • If you’ve anticipated this question and prepared your answer, don’t give the impression that you’re reading a speech. Look genuine and natural, but not arrogant.
  • This almost goes without saying, but look the recruiter in the eye, and don’t forget about your body language. No nervous tics, no slouching or unsuitable positions, and no letting loose nor tensing up. It’s a question of appearing professional and relaxed.

Article updated on August 22, 2022
Original article posted on July 17, 2019

Translated by Mildred Dauvin

Photo: Welcome to the Jungle

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