"Sell me this pen," says the criminally unscrupulous character played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
In the film, recruits had to sell the interviewer a pen he had just pulled out of his pocket.
According to Hollywood, the correct approach is to ask the pen-giver to sign something once he’s handed over the pen. Startled by the pen’s absence, apparently, he’s positively compelled to buy, and the movie tells us that the whole thing works because of supply and demand.
This is wrong. In almost any sales situation, the place to start is with the customer.
An experienced salesperson starts by asking questions, finding out what the customer needs and wants. The approach is called “qualifying” the customer, and it should be a big part of every true sales professional’s arsenal.
That approach doesn’t only apply to selling a pen or making any actual sales call. The same principle has an important place in the job interview, and it matters even if you’re not told to sell anyone anything.
It matters because a job interview, regardless of your field, is a lot like a sales call, but it’s a call in which the product you’re selling is yourself.
You’re there to prove that what you have to offer is just what the employer needs.
The product you are selling is yourself. Your interviewer is your customer.
That’s simple enough in principle, but it gets a little more complicated when you’re interviewing for a sales job.
There, you’re being asked to demonstrate, right in the interview, the very skills that you’ll need on the job, the skills that will or won’t get you hired. You’re exactly like the programmer who’s asked to do some on-the-spot coding with an interviewer looking over his shoulder.
The message: Show us what you can do.
And if you can’t seem to sell yourself, how can we expect you to sell anything else?
Is an interview, then, exactly like a sales call? No, there are clear differences. An interview is not an explicit demonstration of what you can do. You won’t always be asked to sell a pen. Instead, you’ll be asked about your background and your accomplishments. You’ll talk about yourself and your work history. Through all of that, you’ll be selling.
Your interviewer is, in essence, your customer, and qualifying that customer is just as important here as it was in the pen-sale scenario.
The meaning of qualification doesn’t change because you’re being interviewed. It still means asking questions and getting to know your customer. For the interview, you can qualify that customer in two different ways.
First, you can – and should – be doing it as part of your interview preparation, and you should be doing it long before the big day. It’s the same preparation you applied to choosing potential employers, crafting your resume and adjusting your approach to fit specific circumstances. It means learning as much as you can about the company in question.
It’s about doing research and gathering information. You can do that research online. You can check out trade publications. You can speak with people in the industry. If you have a contact at the company itself, there’s no better resource. If you don’t, it’s worth asking your existing contacts if there’s someone who might be willing to give you some time.
The bottom line is that you should walk into every interview knowing as much as possible about the company in question. What’s the latest news? Have they introduced new products or services? Are there noteworthy recent successes? Do they face new challenges? Have they gone through big changes lately?
Knowing that information, you’ve qualified the customer, and you’ll be the candidate who’s ready to hit the ground running.
Second, you’ll get to qualify your interviewer face-to-face. In every interview, you’ll be asked if you have any questions. Even if the interviewer’s only being polite, seize the moment. Ask questions of your own. Make them good questions, ones that show you’re on top of things, and they can say more about you than the answers you’ve already given.
The good news is that you’re poised to take advantage of this opportunity. Since you’ve done your homework, you know what questions to ask. Since you’ve seen beyond the misguided approach of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” you know that you’re still qualifying your customer. The right questions are about him or, more accurately, about the company he represents. They’re definitely not about vacation days or fringe benefits. They’re not about you.
The pen, however, is you. The buyer is your potential employer, appearing here in the guise of an interviewer. Sell your pen-like self to that buyer by focusing on him above all. You’ll get the chance to discuss your many features and benefits, but you won’t close the deal unless you qualify the person on the other side of the desk.