Sell Me This Pencil

Were you ever being interviewed for a job when the interviewer said to you, “Sell me this pencil?” What did you say? What was he looking for? Why do people still do this? Without pondering the sociological rational of the interview process, quite simply he or she was just trying to find out how well you can sell, how you present yourself and/or how well you think on your feet.

Whether this ever happened to you or not, what did or would you say? Your first inclination might be to think about all the features and benefits the pencil has to offer and respond with such things as, “Well, this is a fine pencil. As you can see it’s a #2 which is the most popular type of pencil used in post-industrial businesses today. And, it’s sharp, which means you can draw very small pictures while maintaining clarity. Also, look at this large eraser at the other end. This means you can eradicate any mistakes you might make while writing or drawing. You can’t do that with a pen (actually, you can with the newer erasable pens, but who cares). And look at the bright yellow color. This pencil will match nearly 80% of all the earth tone shirts you wear as it extends above the rim of your pocket protector.” Sounds like a whole lot of features, doesn’t it? It also sounds like a whole bunch of useless information. None of these points actually address the customer’s (interviewer’s) needs. Why not? Because you never stopped to ask him what his needs were. You got sucked into the trap that many sales people get caught in.

Often times a prospect will ask you to tell him or her about your product/service at the beginning of your initial meeting. Many a sales person will jump at this offer, thinking that this is, after all, why you are meeting, so the prospect can learn all about your offerings. So when you are asked to tell your prospect about what you have to offer, you are in heaven and start spewing product features all over the prospect’s desk. This is not the best approach. Of all the features that your products or services have to offer, exactly what percent actually fits the ultimate needs of your customer? I don’t know the answer to this because it depends on what you’re selling. But I do know it is well under 100%. Chances are it is under 50% of all the features that they really need or even care about. The amount depends on the complexity of your offerings, but it is rarely anywhere near 100%. Hence, your goal is to first find out what the prospect’s requirements are so that you can match the right features to their specific needs.

In the case of the pencil, even a commodity product such as this can be targeted to specific and individual needs. I remember many years ago being asked this very question during a job interview. My response went something like this:

Interviewer: “Ok Russ, why don’t you sell me this pencil.”

Russ: “I would love to tell you all about this pencil, but in order for me to do the best job I can, I would need to know a little more about how you operate. Would you mind if I ask you a few questions first?”

Interviewer (in a surprised voice): “Uh, well, sure. Go right ahead.”

Russ: “Thank you. First of all, can you explain how you usually correspond with other people?”

Interviewer: “Well, usually I document most of my correspondence on my PC. That would be using Word or emails.”

Russ: “Aside from the PC, what other forms of written communications do you do?”

(Note: If he happened to say “none” then that means theoretically he never uses pencils, an improbable scenario of course, and I would say goodbye, determining that I do not have a product that fits any of his needs. Keep this in mind since there will be prospects who do not, will not and never will need your product. Learn to walk away)

Interviewer: “I also write hand-written notes, sign papers, edit documents, and various other miscellaneous writings.”

Russ: “Can you explain to me what sort of writing tools you use in these cases and what you like and dislike about them?”

Interviewer: “I typically use a pen. I like pens because they write easily and they are permanent, which is important for signatures. But now that you mention it, sometimes they are more permanent than I want. So I end up scratching out a lot of things I write because of mistakes or when I change my mind. When I write a note to someone, this can look very unprofessional. It’s very messy looking on the documents I edit and even on my notes to myself. Also, when I put a pen in my pocket, I’ve had them leak ink all over my shirt which is very embarrassing and ruins my clothing.”

Russ: “It seems to me then that you could benefit from several writing tools. Your PC is required for your larger volumes of correspondence and for easier editing and storage of these documents. A pen is beneficial for those permanent hand-written signatures or other similar markings. And a pencil could also benefit you by allowing you to easily correct errors, write quick and neat notes, and keep your shirts from getting ruined from leakage. Furthermore, pencils are the least expensive investment, are lightweight and you can even have your name embossed on them for promotional purposes. How does this sound to you so far?”

Interviewer: “Sounds like a great alternative. How would I go about getting my hands on some of these pencils?”

And the joust continued until he got the point (pardon the pun!) and was suitably impressed. As you can see, I turned this completely around by getting my prospect to tell me all about his needs. It was not important for me to explain the pencil’s features until I knew which features were important to the prospect. And I learned what that was by asking questions.

Your goal should not be to remember, then regurgitate, every feature your product has to offer. Yes, you do need to know what your product’s features and benefits are. That is critical. But your goal should be to listen intently to what the prospect is saying their needs are and then match the right solution and its features/benefits to those requirements. Any other information is superfluous and can cause more confusion. It could even raise concerns that your product is over-complicated or hit a sore spot with the prospect from previously bad experiences.

Ask the right questions, listen well to the answers and fit the right solution to the problems described. If you do these three things, you’ll sell more pencils than you ever thought possible.

Good luck and good selling!

Russ Lombardo


Russ Lombardo, President & Founder of PEAK Sales Consulting, LLC, is a nationally recognized Sales and CRM consultant, speaker, trainer, author and radio show host. Russ works with business owners, sales executives and professionals who want to increase their sales results by acquiring new customers and retaining existing ones. He consults with large and small businesses in a broad range of industries. As a speaker, Russ presents sales training seminars and customer retention workshops as we...

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