Business Development v. Sales: Do You Know the Difference?

man standing at window overlooking city



Sales and business development are just two different words for the same activity. Right? Aren’t the terms interchangeable and it’s just who we are talking to that determines which word we use?

Actually they are not the same. Like marketing, both are necessary for the successful end result…a customer buys, but they are not the same.

Wikipedia defines business development as “the creation of long-term value for an organization from customers, markets and relationships” through tasks and processes aimed at developing and implanting growth opportunities within and between organizations. In a traditional sense, business development refers to any activity designed to expand your organization’s reach into a new market (which kinda sounds like marketing, doesn’t it?).

Sales according to Wikipedia is the activity related to selling which includes a process that has implied rules and identifiable stages. The stages involve: getting acquainted, assessing each party’s need for the other’s items of value and determining if the value is worth the price. Sales is all about closing.

I spent a lot of time on the Internet looking up what is the definition of sales, what is the definition of business development and of marketing. One thing became clear to me, there is not a standard definition for each that everyone agrees on. It’s a bit confusing, even to me who has been in sales for decades. Many of my clients refer to any activity that involves putting themselves in front of potential clients as business development. This is true whether it’s a website, networking, writing articles, referral sources or anything else. And perhaps what we label it isn’t important.

Realistically whether we call it business development or sales probably doesn’t matter, if it results in securing clients or selling our products. Here’s the challenge though. For many they simply do not know how to sell and move the process through the necessary stages to close the deal, which of course is the ultimate goal. When business isn’t coming their way they don’t understand why, as they think they are doing everything necessary to drive business…and in reality what they are doing is marketing and maybe some business development activities. Sales professionals know the difference and understand the process. Those who don’t sell for a living often don’t.

I recently worked with a company where I did sales training. What became apparent quickly was they only followed up with clients who were potentially ready to buy in the near future. They might spend six months or a year talking to a prospect, doing demos and creating proposals, but anyone who wasn’t actively considering buying soon they simply ignored and never did any further follow up. I found it curious that their definition of sales was only someone ready to buy. In my experience people you talk to today may not have a need right now, or they may not be ready to consider you. That doesn’t mean they may not be a potential prospect in six months, a year or even two years. Keeping yourself in front of these people opens up doors for future sales. To me this is a natural part of the sales strategy process and business development.

Why do I bring this up? To demonstrate that everyone has a different definition of sales and the sales strategy, and also to provide an example that at least in this company’s view their website and webinars they conduct are sales activities. Does it matter as long as they are closing deals? Maybe not, but understanding that business development is the link between marketing and sales is useful, so you as a company can determine resource allocation, and measure the success of what you are doing.

If, for example, you are tweaking your website with new content regularly, publishing articles, offering something free for potential buyers to drive traffic, etc., etc., these are neither business development nor sales activities. Important for sure as marketing activities and bringing potential buyers to your door. However, if you consider them a sales strategy or business development, and the results are not what you expected, it’s difficult to assess what isn’t working or what to change. Are you targeting/attracting the wrong buyers? Are the right buyers showing up but you don’t know how to systematically move them through the sales process but you aren’t recognizing this? Is what you are offering not of interest or presented in a way that is of interest? I can’t say and that is the challenge with labeling everything sales or business development or even marketing. It’s also the challenge of not recognizing that all three are necessary, and the distinction between sales and business development.

Bottom line…business development is as necessary as sales, and they are different. If you want to measure activities that drive business to your organization it’s essential that you make the distinction between these two activities (as well as marketing) in order to ascertain what’s working and what’s not. One of my colleagues uses the expression “know the score, report the score, the score improves”. You have to know what the measure (the score), in order to evaluate the results (report the score) and see the results improve.

Sales can’t happen unless you have potential buyers. Sound simple and I’m sure everyone reading this article would agree. It involves taking that interested buyer from interest to the point of a ‘yes’. In my opinion, it’s the part of the cycle that is often not done well or neglected altogether, under the guise of business development. Until you understand the distinction between sales and business development, you are likely to spend a lot of time, energy, and money on one or the other. They are interconnected and both are necessary for a successful end result.

Where are you spending your resources…marketing, business development or sales? Take some time to answer this question and then evaluate the results. You might be surprised at what you learn.


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