TL;DR

What: The key difference lies in what they are selling

Know the Difference: Business Development and Sales

Same same but different.

Business Development Shaking Hands
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Puzzled, I thought to myself: Is the business development job title merely an overly-glorified sales representative position?

Three years ago, I applied for a business development internship at a startup. I was really excited about the position because I thought I was going to be involved in the strategic development of the business. Even though I had no prior experience in the role, I got offered the internship and naively accepted it.

When my internship began, I was tasked to cold call prospective clients to sell their company’s products. Puzzled, I thought to myself: Is the business development job title merely an overly-glorified sales representative position? Or is there truly a legitimate purpose for this seemingly ambiguous position?

…you might be unintentionally sabotaging the potential of your business by hiring the wrong person for the job.

If you are a business owner and you think that business development and sales are one and the same, you might be unintentionally sabotaging the potential of your business by hiring the wrong person for the job.

There is a reason why the business development position exists in the first place, and it’s not to do sales. Even though both business development and sales share similar job descriptions, the two positions have very different goals. Unfortunately, many business owners these days don’t know this difference.

By definition

Business development = Searching for new markets

Business development is the creation of long-term value for an organisation from customers, markets and relationships. A business development executive focuses on identifying and executing new areas of the business. This means entering new markets, new distribution channels, new products or new partnerships. You get the drift.

Sales = Selling to existing/prospective clients

The business development executive opens up new channels so that the sales representatives can go in and sell in order to generate more revenue for the company.

On the contrary, sales refer to activities related to selling existing goods and services of a company in existing markets within a given period of time. The focus of a sales representative is on maximising the number of transactions in order to increase the company’s revenue.

To put into context…

The business development executive opens up new channels so that the sales representatives can go in and sell in order to generate more revenue for the company.

The similarities

An employee in either role needs to know how to connect with their clients and converse beyond just small-talk in order to build trust.

Despite the different definitions, both positions have some overlapping skill sets. One of which requires the employee to reach out to external stakeholders and build strong relationships. An employee in either role needs to know how to connect with their clients and converse beyond just small-talk in order to build trust.

Also, since customers care more about how you sell rather than what you sell, having strong networking and communication skills is extremely crucial. For example, a business executive must have a certain level of salesmanship in order to effectively pitch their company to their prospects. Similarly, a salesperson has to have strong persuasive skills in order to close deals.

The differences

However, even though the skillsets may overlap, the differences lie in the intentions and goals.

Business development: Long-term Value

Unlike a sales representative, a business development executive is concerned about the broader strategy of the business. They are constantly searching for new and atypical interactions with external stakeholders who are currently not partners of the company. Instead of selling, the business development executive focuses on building long-term relationships that drive long-term value for the company.

Sales: Short-term Gain

If your business needs to bring in revenue quickly now, you probably need to hire a salesperson. Otherwise… hiring a business development executive would be a better choice.

On the other hand, a sales representative focuses on selling. Their task is to convert as many leads into actual paying customers of the company. Building a relationship with their leads is still important but it will always be their secondary objective. Their primary goal will be to raise the company’s bottom line and ensure that they meet their sales target.

Using an analogy of a fisherman fishing for fishes:

A business development executive is a fisherman who searches for new pools of fishes.
A salesperson is a fisherman who searches for fishes in the pools identified by the business development executive.

So which is more important? Well, it depends. If your business needs to bring in revenue quickly now, you probably need to hire a salesperson. Otherwise, if you’re looking for a long-term gain, hiring a business development executive would be a better choice.

Right person, wrong hat

…you are unwittingly underutilising their capabilities and restricting them of their ability to do what they were supposed to do.

You might have hired an excellent business development executive. But, by assigning them responsibilities of a salesperson, you are unwittingly underutilising their capabilities and restricting them of their ability to do what they were supposed to do. That employee could have closed a new long-term partnership for the company but they were caught up with meeting their clients for a one-time sales appointment.

Final words

At the end of the day, what’s most important is to be brutally honest with yourself and find out what your business really need right now. Evidently, many business owners these days are taking the easy way out by over-glorifying a sales position and masking it with the label “business development”. Unfortunately, doing so only creates confusion as to what your business strategy actually is.

If you need a salesperson, hire one. If not, don’t make your business development executive do most of the sales work.


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I am a first-year undergrad and an aspiring digital marketer. I love to write about issues I feel strongly about but on most days, I'd rather write about issues that matter.
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