Sell Me This Pen!

In years past, there was a mythical sales test where an older, experienced sales professional would test a new, inexperienced pen by handing him his pen and then directing the novice to attempt to sell him his pen.  It was expected that the novice would try to explain the pen’s features and how the “buyer” could not live without it.  He would show how easy it was to click the top of the pen, how nice the ink appeared on paper, how it could be used in many writing positions, and how inexpensive it was.  Then the novice was expected to “close” the buyer with some tough hard closes, such as “What will it take for you to buy this pen from me now?” or “Can we write up an order for a dozen pens right now?”

We have come a long way since this ploy was used in evaluating sales candidates.  If a sales manager or an experienced salesperson tried to do this with a sales rep today, he would probably be laughed at.  The inexperienced rep would probably run out the door if he were a Millennial.

If the objective is to test a person’s ability to sell to you spontaneously, a better alternative would be to set up a brief “role play.”  A scenario would be created that would include several people in the buying team, each with different roles and levels of influence in the buying decision. (Anybody can be a participant, but the optimum would be people from those functional areas that can ask and answer questions, and maybe were drama students.) The novice or person being evaluated would be asked to prepare to sell a product or solution to the team. Typically, it would be something he was familiar with or a common item the company might purchase (but not a pen!)

The role play would last no more than 12 to 15 minutes.  For example, a role-play scenario might look like this:

The company: A $100 mm global manufacturing company headquartered in the Midwest.  You can add anything that distinguishes your company from others that you want the candidate to consider.

The people: Joe Johnson, CEO; Nancy Prendergast, CFO; Marcy Nelson, Director of IT; and Mark Meyer, Director of Procurement (people assume these roles.) Johnson is the economic buyer. Prendergast is responsible for the budget and ROI calculation.  Nelson must ensure that the purchase is compatible with the current architecture and has veto power.  Meyer will manage the buying process.

You are selling: A new HR talent-sourcing platform to the manufacturing company.

Your company is a leader in HR technology, and your system is competitively priced, not the most expensive or least expensive.

You have fifteen minutes to prepare how to present this to the group.

After the role-play is concluded, the participants from the “buyer” company should discuss how they felt about the candidate’s preparation and presentation, or if that is not desirable, they can meet shortly afterward to evaluate the candidate’s role-play performance, as well as other sales attributes, such as his questioning techniques, how he interacted with others, and how seriously he carried out this exercise.  I preferred to discuss the performance with the candidate to observe how well he took constructive criticism.

Does the role-play technique “work,” or does it reveal whether the candidate has sales ability? Or will he be a good fit for your sales organization? No, not necessarily, but it gives you a better idea than interviewing the person. At the same time, you review his resume, which has certainly been prepared to highlight his best attributes and accomplishments.  There will always be subjectivity.

Candidates will always try to impress you with their sales accomplishments.  This is just one method you can utilize to judge their fit for your sales organization better.