Could You Influence Someone to Buy Your Pen?

It is probably one of the most annoying interview questions ever:

“Sell me this pen.”

It probes our understanding of the laws of supply and demand, and our ability to persuade and influence, but it seems just a little contrived. Creating an artificial demand is not something that often happens in the real world. People have needs (albeit sometimes well-hidden needs) and it is our job to work out how to serve them.

FMCG is an industry with a classic “traders” mentality at its very core. With its roots in the medieval town markets, where sellers and purchasers meet, there will always be something worth purchasing. If it isn’t worth purchasing, it won’t be bought, and it will be replaced by something more worthwhile. The most basic principle of retail, right there.

However, in a complex world where similar goods are available from multiple outlets, the influencing piece gets far more complex. Why is a customer going to buy your brand of yogurt and not from your competitor? It is not about “sell me your pen” anymore – they know that they want the yogurt, but which one should they choose?

This is where the influencing machine of the FMCG industry swings into play. Persuading people to “pick you” is an attitude that permeates any great organisation. From the purchasing teams who negotiate the most competitive rates, to the logistics team who ensure that it is there in the first place, not forgetting the marketing guys who package it, so you simply have to pick it up – everyone is working hard to influence you.

To influence the purchasing decision, you have to understand the criteria that influence the customer’s choice. If you work for a company for a while, it is easy to become insular and narrow-minded, but it is always worth getting out into the shops and looking at the sorts of people who are buying your products. Why do they choose yours? What makes it different? What makes it right for them? Behind every number on your spreadsheet is a real person picking up your product and taking it to the till. The job of anyone in FMCG is to do their bit to ensure that their products are picked up by as many people as possible.

It is a good start that someone wants to buy a pen, but they have to want to buy your pen.

I know that I have just interviewed a good candidate when I leave the interview wanting to buy their products. They will have been talking about themselves and their experience, but they will have talked so compellingly about their current employers that my consumer appetite will have been whetted. If that passion to influence is absent, then they probably won’t be such a committed employee for any future employer.

FMCG is an industry of persuasive salesmen. If they are not selling me their “pens,” they are not doing their jobs properly.