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Why Sell Me This Pen is Still Relevant

Brigette Hyacinth (Author: The Future of Leadership: Rise of Automation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence) recently posted on LinkedIn, “If a sales manager asks you, "sell me this pen", on a job interview. THIS is how you answer” and then detailed the right way to answer the pen question.

Most of the people commenting on her post, debated the relevance of the pen question. Many considered it a terrible practice; others defended it as a useful test of Sales skills. My comment simply mentioned how in college I saw a video that portrayed one correct way to answer the question. The applicant asked the interviewer whether he needed a pen and then proceeded to ask about those needs.

A few hours after I read the article, the pen question kept popping up in my mind. The relevance issue concerned me, and I couldn’t figure out why; until I chanced to spot my copy of The Startup of You by Reid Hoffman.

Hoffman preaches that we are all responsible for our own careers.

And that’s when I realized the relevance and importance of the pen question for everyone, not just salespeople.

You see, I believe the philosophy espoused by Hoffman, Liz Ryan, Stephen Melanson, and others, such as author Elizabeth White, who told me, “Ed, the cavalry’s not coming through that door; you’re on your own!”

In this area of “personal branding” and “everyone’s an entrepreneur”, we must sell ourselves.

In other words, we are all pens.

In Ms. Hyacinth’s post about the pen, she wrote, “NEVER attempt to sell a product. Rather than selling the pen, sell the need. Focus on needs analysis to create a demand. Use open questions, such as how or what. ‘How would you be using the pen or what would you be using the pen for?’ Then relate the answers to the pen's features.”

In my interviewing skills workshops, I’ve been counseling job-seekers to cease stressing their skills and experience (their “features”), and instead focus on the needs of the employer. I’ve directed job-seekers to ask interviewers more questions about those needs. I say, “Their answers will allow you to state how your skill set and experience can solve their problem.”

But, until I read Ms. Hyacinth’s post, I never thought of saying “We are all pens.”

A salesperson answering the pen challenge will ask the hiring manager, “How would you be using the pen or what would you be using the pen for?”

Any job-seeker can ask “What project would you initially place me on?” or “What’s your 30-60-90 plan to integrate my skills into the department and ensure I’m up to speed for you?”

Ms. Hyacinth wrote “A sell happens when you connect the functional utility of the item to the needs of the audience and show how it helps them realize their goals.”

In my sessions, I remind job-seekers how everyone is hired as a problem-solver.

Incorporating Ms. Hyacinth’s terms, I could say---You need to connect your functional utility to the needs of the hiring manager and demonstrate how you can solve their problems, make their lives easier, and allow them to move on to their next goal.

Finally, Ms. Hyacinth wrote “don't forget to ask for the sale, e.g. 'it appears that the pen meets all of your requirements; how many would you like to order today?' “

I teach people how, before the interview’s end, an applicant should politely ask for the job. One of my favorite questions for this is, “If you were to continue the job-search after interviewing me, what would you look for in the next candidate that you didn’t see in me?”

In other words, if you aren’t going to buy me today, why not? What are you waiting for?

I hope this ends the great pen debate.

We are all pens.

It’s up to each of us to sell ourselves to the employer.

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