Role-play with me, if you will, presenting yourself to me over the phone as if you were a headhunter. Can you convince me that this "product" you're selling is worth my time?

Why Ask This Question?

No, this isn't only an exercise for hiring potential recruiters. Instead, it is an exercise to replace a hackneyed and trite interviewing query used way too often in corporate America: ''Sell me the pen.'' The problem with the ''sell me the pen'' scenario is that it's so overused that candidates come to expect it. That being the case, they prepare themselves to sell pens better than they sell their actual products.

The reason why this query has stood the test of time is because it forces job candidates to distinguish between the object's features and benefits; to overcome any objections that you, the pretend prospective buyer, could raise; and, most important, to ''close'' you on the purchase. However, Question 44 does all this much more effectively without being so predictable, so let's take a look at it.

Analyzing the Response

Asking candidates to sell themselves to you is challenging because they have to be totally objective about a very personal topic—namely, themselves! Distinguishing features from benefits isn't so easy when discussing their own strengths and limitations as well as what makes them stand out among their peers. Furthermore, because of the intimacy of the subject, most candidates are doubly challenged in providing role-play answers that mesh well with their interview responses. That extra dimension of accountability often adds some circumspection to candidates' otherwise bold responses and makes overcoming objections and closing you on the hire a tougher challenge.

How to Get More Mileage out of the Question. In evaluating candidates' responses, expect some initial discomfort. After all, no matter how confident candidates are, this exercise does set them up to brag about themselves. (And most people on a job interview don't want to go overboard in that area.) Next, gauge the presentation. Does the individual start off the sales presentation timidly with a trite ''How are you today?'' or does the person get to the point right away? A creative presentation, for example, might sound like this:

''Ms. Employer, I'm calling to tell you about a copier sales executive who's expressed an interest in meeting with your company because he's aware of your reputation, he works for a direct competitor, and he's thoroughly researched your organization. He ranks among the top 20 percent of producers in his company and has a proven track record of taking a poorly performing territory and increasing market share above the national average within two years. Would you consider talking to someone like that?''

Good Answers. It won't always sound this smooth, but the presentation should at least offer tangible results and future benefits. You're then free to lob some objections at the individual, including, ''I have no openings,'' ''Tell me more about him,'' and ''What's he looking for?'' After presenting an objection like ''We have no openings,'' look for candidate rebuttals like, ''Well, you know, Ms. Employer, it's been my experience that strong companies would set up an office in a closet for someone who could immediately add to their top-line revenues. Perhaps you'd consider comparing his track record to some of your existing staff.'' Such heads-up rebuttals show a great deal of ingenuity, creativity, and wit.

Finally, the close in this scenario lies in setting up the interview. See how aggressively the individual overcomes your objections and gets you to commit to meeting with a top producer if only on an exploratory basis. It's an exercise that will shed lots of light onto candidates' self-esteem levels and their abilities to present a product that they're not naturally inclined to sell.

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