The Difference Between Business Development and Sales

The terms business development and sales are often used interchangeably.  This is a mistake. While the end goal is the same, they are very different strategies.

"Nothing happens in business until something gets sold." Thomas J. Watson

The Tip of the Spear

In the Marine Corps we call the infantry “the tip of the spear,” because they’re on the front lines of the fight.  Many civilians are surprised to find out that infantry Marines make up only about 10% of the Marine Corps.  The rest of the Marines are support – truck drivers, admin, air wing, etc.  I’m not saying support Marines don’t see combat, every Marine is a rifleman. I was a truck driver and I saw plenty of action, but the percentage of Marines who have combat as their primary duty is surprisingly low.

Nothing Happens in Business Until Something Gets Sold – Thomas Watson

Interestingly, the same “tip of the spear” dynamic applies in business.  Only about  13% of all full time jobs in the US are in sales.  In a world where, “nothing happens until something gets sold,”  the sales department is a surprisingly small portion of the force.  They are out there on the front lines making things happen.  Salespeople are the “tip of the spear.”

Every Marine a Rifleman

Just like every Marine in the Marine Corps is a rifleman, every employee in a company is a salesperson.  Author and entrepreneur Harvey Mackay says all of his employees are salespeople, “To me, job titles don’t matter. Everyone is in sales. It’s the only way we stay in business.”  Not every employee has sales in their job title but every employee’s actions -whether directly or indirectly – contribute to the only thing that matters in a business – making a sale.

A Department(?) of the Navy

When it was established, the Marine Corps was a Department of the Navy.  The historical mission of the Marines was to secure ships and crew.  Over time, the Marine Corps mission grew and now it often operates independently of the Navy.  Organizationally, it still falls under the Navy.  Sales forces have had a similar trajectory.

In the traditional definition, sales is part of the marketing department.  But few think about sales as a subset of marketing.  Sales and marketing are considered their own separate functions.  That’s as it should be, sales and “marketing” require very different skill sets.  One is in direct contact with the customer and the other is in indirect contact.  On a tactical level, they use very different tools to achieve the same objective.

Sales Without Selling

While nothing happens without sales, salespeople aren’t always necessary.  Some of the world’s great companies generate billions in revenue without sales people:

  • Apple ($234B)
  • Google($74B)
  • Starbucks ($21B)

That’s the power of marketing.  When the product fits the market and the company has a terrific brand, the product sells itself.  Some companies have created businesses so attractive that salespeople aren’t necessary.  The products sell themselves without being sold.

Business Development Right of Center

If we place direct contact (i.e. sales) at the far left end of a scale and indirect contact (i.e. marketing) at the far right end of the scale, business development lies somewhere closer to the marketing side.

Business development is an indirect way of selling.  Serial entrepreneur Andrew Dumont describes it this way, “Simply stated, the function of sales is to sell directly to the end customer.  The function of business development is to work through partners to sell to the end customer.”

Another way of saying this is, business development is a B2B strategy.  Business owners have to “sell” another business on the opportunity to partner with them.

In talking and listening to entrepreneurs one thing is clear, entrepreneurs are salespeople first and foremost.  It doesn’t matter if its a corner store or high-tech startup, an entrepreneur has to constantly be selling the value of his or her business whether that’s directly to consumers or to other businesses.