When companies interview candidates for sales jobs, they still fall back on the hoary "sell me this pen" challenge to test whether the candidate possesses the sales skills. This is a lousy idea because:

1. Trick interview questions don't work.

Every trick interview question, including this one, has been endlessly publicized online, along with the canned "right" answers to them. Canned answers tell you nothing about candidates other than they know how to use the web and can memorize a sales script. Useful skills, perhaps, but hardly a solid indicator of whether someone can actually sell a real product to a real customer.

2. It's incredibly cheesy.

This interview question has been around for decades. It's strictly from the old school world of carnival barking and the "Always Be Closing" speech from Glengarry Glen Ross. Merely by asking it, interviewers signaling that they're old farts. I strongly suspect that any top-flight salesperson would question whether they want to work for a sales manager who trots out this hoary chestnut.

3. It has flawed premises.

The question assumes that "a good salesperson can sell anything to anybody." In fact, selling today is specialize and each sales job demands different skills. There's a world of difference between selling a car and selling, say, a factory inventory system. And that skill is entirely different from what's needed for telesales. So even if the candidate wows you with a spectacular sales pitch that you've never heard before, all you've learned is that the person knows how to sell a pen.

4. You won't hear the only answer that makes sense.

With all due respect to the sales gurus who've tried to come up with the best answer to "sell me this pen," you're all dead wrong. There's only one answer that makes sense in today's largely frictionless sales environment:

  • Interviewer: Sell me this pen.
  • Candidate: OK. Here's your free pen. (Hands it back to interviewer.)
  • Interviewer: (Taking it back.) What?!?
  • Candidate: Allow me to explain. A used pen has almost no financial value either to you or me. So rather than trying to sell it, I just gave it to you. By accepting it, you incurred a social obligation to give me something in return, like your valuable time. That's worth a lot more to me than any amount of money that I could get for the pen. In addition, by accepting the pen, you've given me my first "yes." It's a very small "yes" but it still creates momentum. lt also helps build a relationship.

This approach, BTW, is based upon what's probably the best book on the psychology of sales and marketing, Robert Cialdini's appropriately-named bestseller Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion.