How to Sell the Plague: Down and Out Part 2

Richard A. Plinke


Editor’s Note: This is the ninth installment in a 10-part series of excerpts from Richard A. Plinke’s upcoming book, “How to Sell the Plague (Without Being a Rat and Other Cheeky Musings of an Unrepentant Salesman).” The series humorously explores how Plinke ended up in sales, the last place he ever thought he’d be and what he learned during those early days that carried over through his 35-year sales career. Subsequent installments will be posted each Monday. If you missed the first parts, you can go back to the beginning here:


Then he tosses me a cheap, blue pen. “Sell me this pen,’ he challenges.

The sales puke had prepped me for this situation. He told me that interviewers will sometimes hand you an object from the room, like a notebook, a coffee mug or a pen, and ask you to sell it to them. The three things to remember, he said, adding that they were the three most basic tenets of selling, is to ask questions about the customer’s use of the product, listen to the customer's answers, and then position the product relative to the customer’s needs.

Okay, and right after that I'll build a hydrogen bomb in my back yard out of odds and ends lying around.

Being the good student, I ask Carl Little if he has a pen.

“Yes,” he replies.

“Do you like it?” I ask.

“Yes,” he replies.

“Does it satisfy all your writing needs?”

“Yes,” he replies.

“Are you happy with its price?”

“Yes,” he replies.

I’m listening to every word he says, hanging on their intrinsic meaning.

Obviously my questions are not soliciting answers with any value for positioning the product relative to the customer’s needs. I need to get him to give me longer answers; I need to get him talking.


 So I ask him why he likes his pen.

Bingo. Now I’m on the right track.

“I don’t know, I just like it,” he answers, and gives me a look that says crash and burn, smart ass.

Mayday, mayday!

“Do you like your pen because it writes well?” I fumble.

“Yes,” he replies.

“Is there anything about your pen you would change if you could?”

“No,” he replies.

“Is there anything about your pen that you don’t like?”

“No,” he replies.

I’m scrambling. “Please tell me about your pen.”

“There’s nothing to tell. It’s a great pen,” he replies.

Tell you what I’m gonna do.

I’m going to try to sell you my pen anyway, even though you obviously don’t need a pen, have no interest in a pen, couldn’t care less about my pen, and in spite of the fact that I can’t think of one good reason why you would buy my pen.


“What happens when your pen runs out of ink?” I ask.

“Huh?” he says. I’ve got him here.

“When your pen runs out of ink, what then  Here’s a pen just as good as your pen, priced about the same and built to the same swell specifications. Someday when you’re in the middle of making important notes and your pen runs out of ink, what are you going to do then?”

He reaches into his inside jacket pocket and pulls out another pen just like the one he handed me. “I'll use this one he says.”

Beam me up, Scotty.

“Alright,” he finally says, putting me out of my misery. He then talks for awhile about the job and asks me questions regarding information on my resume and application. He explains that the company, named American Directory Sales, is exclusively contracted by Bell Telephone to handle their Yellow Page advertising, and that although the advertising contracts, stationary and business cards all are in the name of the Yellow Pages, with the Yellow Page logo, I, if I get the job, would be employed by ADS. As the interview appears to be winding down, he leans on his desk, pushing himself closer to me and says, “Please tell me, what is your biggest weakness?”

I think for a moment and then say, “I think my biggest weakness is that I’m to self-critical. I’m too hard on myself.”  That sounds pretty good.

“Give me a break, will you please,” he throws at me. “I ask you for a weakness and you give me crap camouflaged as a virtue. You know,” he lectures, and I feel like I’m sitting in the principal’s office, “you are a bright young man, articulate and you have some charm. My guess is that you have gotten by far too long on those kinds of transient assets, but if you plan to be successful in life, to achieve real success, then you are going to have to start delivering some genuine substance."

“Now please tell me what is your biggest weakness.”

At this point I figure I’ll be working at the beef and beer, and soon because I have no chance of getting this job, not after this interview. And besides, I’m tired of these interviews, tired of being probed and prodded, and definitely tired of Carl Little, so the way I see it, having been verbally and emotionally beat up for the last hour, I have nothing to lose. Might as well go out with a bang.

“I could never hit a curve ball.”

“What did you say?” an incredulous Carl Little asks. “Did you say you could never hit a curve ball?”

“Yes, that’s my biggest weakness. Always has been. I could never hit a curve ball, especially if it was down and out.”

“Down and out,” he practically shouts. “Down and out,” he repeats and starts laughing, a slow, long-a-coming laugh from deep down in some private area of Carl Little where no man has gone before, a laugh that starts out like watching a rocket ship take off on television, first with a small, slow burn, and then exploding in a billowing cloud of flames and smoke that eventually engulfs the entire picture screen. He laughs loud and hard and long and his eyes tear up.

“Down and out, that’s a good one,” he finally says after he catches his breath and wipes away the tears. I can’t believe it but he’s smiling, smiling for the first time since I walked in the room. “That's a very good one, indeed. I’ll have to remember that one. That was a good answer.”


Down and Out.

That’s what I thought I was, but I finally hit a curve ball.

And I hit it out of the park.


Next Week: Now I Are One

It’s the final step of the interview process… Or is it?


Learn more about Richard Plinke and read his blog here: