Get automatic updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Connect with Steve Sipress


Steve Clark: How Do you Sell a Pencil?


If I gave you a pencil and asked you to sell it, how would you go about it?

This is one of the most basic sales questions I ask potential sales training or coaching clients. Their answer reveals much about their previous training, understanding of the sales process, and ultimately their level of competency in selling.

When I encounter a sales person who thinks they are really good – most sales people think they are better than they actually are, which is a topic for another time – I like to pull out a pencil and give it to them and ask them to sell it to me. Since I am a sales trainer, most of them decline out of fear of looking bad in front of the Guru. That says a lot about their confidence and lack of guts.

At least 80% of those who do take the challenge will usually start off by pitching and puking product information. They say things like “This pencil is brand new, never been used. It has ‘Grade 2’ lead and a bright yellow color so it’s easy to find. It comes with a built-in eraser,” yada, yada, yada.

Some reps can (and do!) talk and pitch for 5 minutes or more before they ask a question – if they ever ask one at all. As they ramble on without taking a breath, I intentionally begin to yawn, roll my eyes and consciously indicate a total lack of interest. Even this display of nonverbal communication doesn’t stop their verbal assault. They plow on totally clueless about my state of mind.

This approach indicates a total lack of understanding of the consultative approach to selling and, is in effect, more akin to carnival barking or peddling out of the back of a Conestoga Wagon.

Unfortunately, our profession is saturated with these incompetents posing as pros.

“What’s wrong with these people?” I think.

So, what is the most effective way to sell a pencil?

To answer this question, we need look no further than to Fred Herman, who Earl Nightingale called “the greatest sales trainer who ever lived.” Years ago, Herman was a guest on the Tonight Show with host Johnny Carson. When Herman was introduced, Carson welcomed him by saying, “You’re the greatest salesman in the world — sell me something.”

Carson expected a razzmatazz sales spiel. Instead, Herman asked, “What would you like me to sell you?”

“I don’t know,” Johnny replied. “How about this ash tray?”

“Why the ash tray, Johnny? What is it that you like about that ash tray?” asked Herman.

Carson listed the things he liked: It matched the brown color of his desk, was octagonal and fulfilled the need for someplace to put his ashes.

Then Herman asked, “Wow much would you be willing to spend for a brown octagonal ashtray like that one?”

“Maybe $20,” said Johnny.

“Sold!” said Herman.

In short, there is your answer.

When I issue the challenge and give the pencil to the real sales professional, they take the pencil and observe it, pause and then begin asking me questions like:

  • “How often do you use a pencil?”
  • “Why do you use a pencil instead of a pen?”
  • “Why would you use a pencil instead of a mechanical pencil?”
  • “How many pencils do you go through in a month?”
  • “Who else in your company uses pencils?”
  • “How often do you order them?”
  • “What quantity do you usually order them in?”
  • “Besides yourself, who’s involved in the buying decision?”

Quite a difference, huh? I have trained and coached thousands of sales reps and they can easily be separated into these two groups: Those who pitch, pitch, pitch, and those who take the time to uncover their prospect’s buying motives and properly qualify to understand the prospect’s buying process.

Which category do you fit into?

Be honest with yourself. When you speak with a prospect for the first time, how much of your conversation is focused on describing and pitching your product or service as opposed to questioning and uncovering buying motives?

If you are like the majority of sales reps I encounter, then it’s filled with descriptions of what you do and how your product or service helps them, how it works, what it costs, etc. Most sales reps verbally attack the prospect with a barrage of “value statements” that turn people off and make them want to get you off the phone or out of their office as quickly as possible.

Want more sales and success? Then take a tip from some of the best “pencil sales reps” and change your approach and opening to focus more on questioning – discovering whether you’re dealing with a qualified buyer, and what it might take to actually sell them.

Failing to adopt this process, you’ll just end up with a lot of frustration and a lot of unsold pencils at the end of the month.

One Response to Steve Clark: How Do you Sell a Pencil?

  1. test Reply

    May 1, 2017 at 11:27 pm

    Definitely believe that that you said. Yoour favorite justification appeared
    to be at thhe web the simplest thihg to keep in mind of. I say to you, I certainly
    get irked even as other flks consider issues that they plainly don’t understand about.
    You managed to hit the nail upon the highest as smartly as
    defined out the entire thing without having siude
    effect , people could take a signal. Willl likely be back to
    get more. Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *