Salespeople aren't providing value for customers

Sales Leaders: How to Spot If Your Salespeople Are “Onion Polishers”

You’ve probably heard the expression, “peel the onion”. It’s a metaphor for understanding root cause or discovering the impact of an issue or objective.

Here’s how to quickly spot if your salespeople are NOT doing discovery or root cause analysis well if at all.

There are two ways to spot this.

  1. In their proposals
  2. In their conversations

In proposals, this will show up in the summary of issues or what you shared section. And they will be high-level articulations of what the customer has shared they want to achieve. For example:

  • Improve email campaign results
  • Increase basket size/ spend
  • Increase sales
  • Increase productivity
  • Increase sales growth
  • Reduce turnover
  • Reduce errors
  • Reduce costs
  • Etc.

All of these are fine and not enough.

They’ve not gone down to the next levels of granularity (the onion layers below the high-level statement).

Your salesperson hasn’t guided the customer to think through the outcomes and financial ramifications of these “surface-level” issues. There’s a simple way to do this.

  • “What’s your sense of the cause of these current results?”
  • “What are your results today?” or “How do you measure that today?”
  • “What do you want them to be?”
  • “What’s the value in $ if that result is improved?”

Eh, voila! A business case is born.

And each high-level issue will have its own mini biz case that builds into the overall biz case.

So, if you’re NOT seeing a statement that reads something like this in your salespeople’s proposals, “You’re at X and you’re looking to get to Y in one year,” you will know that your salesperson has been polishing the onion and only asking surface-level questions that don’t create value for the customer. Your opportunity is at risk from a competitor salesperson who has done that for the customer.

In conversations, this will show up as “discovery lite” – a few minutes of questions that help to elicit a list of issues or objectives like the one above.

Many salespeople are quite good at getting customers to share what they’re trying to achieve at a high level. Their mistake is not taking the time to peel the onion.

You will know if your salesperson is “polishing the onion” when the customer shares these top-level issues straight from the top of their head. That’s a watch out right there!

When the customer can rattle off issues or objectives from the top of their head it means they’ve already thought about this and think they know the solution to their issue or objective.

Here’s the kicker: your salespeople blindly accept what the customer tells them and don’t dig deeper to understand why these issues are happening or they don’t create any additional value.

What the customer probably hasn’t done is think through these issues or objectives to understand the impact and financial ramifications of solving or achieving them. That’s where your salespeople can create additional value – either by building the business case, finding out the personal win or bringing additional insights or ideas to the table that the customer has NOT thought of.

Here’s what happens next.

After getting a list of high-level issues, your salespeople will say something to the effect of, “Great, thank you for sharing. We can help with that.”

Then they’ll start talking about your product, service or solution at length – and miss the opportunity of attaching value to themselves because all they’ve done is polished the customers onion.

The customer will then ask for a proposal to get your salesperson off the phone or out of the room. It’s an easy way to get rid of a salesperson – give them something to do.

And your salesperson and maybe even your team will spend time on a proposal that yields no result (what is your proposal to win rate currently?).

This is a leadership issue. Many sales leaders and CEOs cannot model the above approach or skill themselves. If leaders can’t do this, how will salespeople learn how to do this well?

If you’re a leader of salespeople and see your salespeople’s behaviors and results reflected in the above article, then look inwards. You need to be able to do this yourself.

And if you can’t, then call me to explore how you can improve your skills and that of your team quickly.

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Matt Conway

CEO & Principle at Matthew Conway
If you're a CEO or Sales Leader reading this and you want to fill your pipeline with quality opportunities, win more deals and reduce sales cycles by as much as 6x, then perhaps it's time for a chat?

If you want to learn more, feel free to email me at or call me on +1 647-402-2096.
Matt Conway
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