You’re in a job interview for a sales position, and things are going well. Then the interviewer presents the challenge that you knew to expect (yet were still dreading): “Sell me this pen.”
This type of prompt is enough to send your stomach plummeting to your shoes. It’s challenging to think on the fly to begin with, and when that’s combined with the fact that your nerves are running high, it’s common to draw a blank and stare at that pen completely slack-jawed.
Fortunately, like any other type of job interview question, a little preparation and practice can help you knock your response out of the park.
So what do you need to know to effectively answer a “sell me something” interview question? We’re covering all of the details right here.
Why Do Interviewers Ask This Question?
As you might guess, this type of question is frequently asked in interviews for sales positions.
While a pen is a common default object, that’s not the only scenario for this type of sales prompt. Your interviewer might say, “Sell me this bottle of water” or even simply, “Sell me something” and then have you choose an item in the room and state your pitch.
It’s tempting to think that they’re only asking this to stump you or put you in a tough spot—and honestly, that’s partially true.
“Sales can be a very high-pressure job. Interviewers want to see how you answer the question, not necessarily what you say,” says Neely Raffellini, Muse Career Coach and founder of the 9 to 5 Project. “Do you respond with confidence? Do you seem genuine?”
In any sort of sales role, you’ll occasionally find yourself in sticky situations. So interviewers don’t ask this question with the expectation that you’ll have a flawless response (although that certainly doesn’t hurt!). Instead, they simply want to observe how you react under pressure.
4 Tips for a Solid “Sell Me This Pen” Answer
It’s comforting to know that employers are more interested in your overall demeanor—as opposed to only the content of your response.
However, you still need something to say (and ideally, it’ll be effective and impressive). Here are four tips to help you craft an impactful answer to this common question.
1. Be Confident
Remember, the primary reason your interviewer is asking this is to gauge how well you respond when you feel pressured or caught off guard.
Even if you don’t have a perfectly polished sales spiel to whip out at a moment’s notice, do your best to display a level of confidence as you work your way through your answer.
Sit up straight, maintain eye contact, speak clearly, and smile. Those nonverbal cues will go a long way in making you seem poised and self-assured—regardless of the actual content of your sales pitch.
2. Highlight a Need
In a famous scene in the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character tells a salesperson, “Sell me this pen.” The salesperson immediately takes the pen from DiCaprio and then asks him to write his name down—which is impossible to do without any sort of writing utensil.
“The purpose is to prove that he needs the pen,” explains Dan Ratner, a former account executive at The Muse.
While you might not replicate that exact approach, this is definitely a tactic that you can borrow when answering this question yourself.
The best place to start is by asking questions. The temptation is strong to jump right in with a long-winded sales pitch. But remember that a good salesperson takes the time to learn about the needs, goals, and challenges of their prospective customers so that they can tailor their pitch to their audience.
“Your goal is to dig deeper and to understand why they need whatever you’re selling,” adds Ratner. “Usually, this can be ascertained by simply asking, ‘why?’”
Ratner demonstrates the power of asking this type of question with the below interview question and answer example:
Interviewer: “Sell me something.”
Candidate: “Okay, what do you need?”
Interviewer: “A new car.”
Candidate: “Why do you need a new car?”
Interviewer: “My car’s a gas guzzler and I want something that has better MPG.”
Candidate: “Why do you want better MPG?”
Interviewer: “I’m tired of spending tons of cash to fill my SUV. I want to save money.”
Candidate: “Why is it important to you to save money?”
Interviewer: “I’m saving up to buy a house.”
Candidate: “What I hear is you’re in need of a car that helps save you money in the long run so you can buy a home. Is that right?"
Interviewer: “Yes, exactly.”
Candidate: “How serendipitous! I’m in the business of selling electric cars. I’d love to get you started on your dream as a homeowner. Do you prefer cash or credit?”
3. Emphasize the Features and Benefits
In addition to connecting your sales pitch to specific needs, it’s also helpful to call attention to the features or benefits of whatever you’ve been asked to sell. This is all about setting up a distinct value proposition for that item.
“For example, does your pen write with very smooth ink? How will that benefit them? Maybe it can help them write faster or more effortlessly. Does your pen have red ink? Red ink will help their markups stand out on a page,” shares Raffellini.
Raffellini says that selling these unique attributes or perks is a tactic she has used herself in job interviews.
In her first sales interview, “the interviewer [who] asked me this question already had a pen sitting in front of them and pointed to the pen sitting in front of me saying, ‘Sell me that pen.’ I realized that the interviewer didn't need a pen, so I explained why I would choose the pen that I had in front of me. It worked, because I got the job!”
4. Don’t Forget to Close
The close is the most important part of the sale, but it’s also an easy one to forget when you know that the interviewer won’t actually be cutting you a check for that pen of yours.
The last piece of your response is the portion when you can really end on a strong note and leave a lasting impression, so don’t fall into the trap of leaning on something weak like, “So yeah, that’s how I’d sell that…”
Instead, summarize the main points you made and then show the interviewer you know how to close by actually making the ask (like you would in a real sales situation). That might look something like this:
“With its comfortable grip and smooth ink, this pen can help you increase your writing speed, save precious time in your workday, and get more done. Should we move forward with placing your order?”
When you’re on the hunt for any sort of sales position, you need to be prepared to answer some variation of the “sell me this pen” interview question.
The good news is that interviewers don’t expect that you’ll have a completely polished sales pitch ready to go—they’re mostly trying to discern how you respond in high-pressure situations.
So take a deep breath, calm your nerves, and then use these tips to pull together a response that not only makes that interviewer want to buy that pen—but also give you the job.
Photo of person in interview courtesy of pixelfit/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author