Why Should I Buy YOUR Pencil?

by Ken Proctor

Back in the mid-90’s, I was applying for a position at a highly sought after footwear company. The job was in sales and I knew several colleagues had submitted their resumes. I had a friend who worked at the company, and through him, I was able to get my resume in front of the right person. I was told that from a large pool of candidates, twentywould be invited for an interview. The protocol was to whittle the candidates from twenty to fifteen, twelve, eight, five and finally two. I was further told that if I were to make it to one of the final two, I would be called in and asked one question to which there was no right or wrong answer. I would have thirty minutes to think about it, and then give an answer. The other candidate would be asked the same question and a decision would be made by the end of the day.

The interviews got progressively more challenging but eventually, I made it to the finals. As was promised, I was called in, and put in a small room. The man who would eventually be my Boss, asked me the following question: “You are trying to get a job selling pencils. The person interviewing you said; Ken, I am going to drop you off at an account downtown that we have been trying to sell pencils to for 19 years. And for the last 19 years, the buyer has been buying pencils from his Brother in law. Now, our pencils are the same quality, price, shipping, etc. Everything is exactly the same as the pencils that are now being bought. If you can get an order from this guy, I will give you a job. However be advised, this buyer is retiring tomorrow so it is a one shot deal. How do you get the order”?

With this, the interviewer got up, left the room and told me he would be back in thirty minutes for my answer. I started to sweat immediately. Ok, think..What is a point of difference on our pencils? None. How can I establish a relationship of trust? Buyer is retiring tomorrow so no time. Who is the next buyer? Maybe I can start a relationship with him/her? No – I was told it was a one shot deal.

Time was ticking away.

The interviewer came back in the room and asked for my answer. I confirmed that “there is no difference between the pencils”? “Affirmative”? I then came up with this off of the top of my head; “I would say this to the buyer; Look, you do not know me but I am trying to get a job with this pencil company. The guy interviewing me told that he would give me a job if I got an order from you but he never quantified it. I also know you are retiring tomorrow so if you could see your way clear to giving me an order for five pencils, you can retire tomorrow with the satisfaction of knowing that as you finish you career, you helped a younger man start his”.

I held my breath. The interviewer looked at me and told that this was the best answer he ever heard. I have always believed that we are people first and titles second. The business of business is business. But business is conducted by people.

The call came that afternoon, and I started with the company two weeks later.

Ken Proctor