Business Development, Sales and Marketing. They are all much the same, aren’t they?

Absolutely not – and confusion around these functions and activities can be damaging and dangerous.

First, let me provide my credentials for the comments that follow – and the statement above.  I am a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Marketing and also a Fellow of The Institute of Sales Management.  I have enjoyed a 44-year career in both of these disciplines culminating in running 50% of a large US corporation’s business across Europe, the Middle East and Africa – around 25 countries.  I was then appointed as the UK Managing Director for a major US software company. For the last 14 years I have worked to help start-ups, organisations like Catalyst in Belfast and VC’s, to deliver better business results – either directly, or for their clients.  I am also the author of two successful books on B2B business, one from a sales perspective, the other from a leadership point of view.  “I know of what I speak”…  

So, why would I make the above statement?  And why does it matter?  Put simply, the conflation of these functions can lead to reduced performance.

What is the difference?

First, let me say that in the UK and Ireland there is a general reticence across the professions, to use the ‘S’ word at all.  For some reason it’s not ‘professional’.  So, in conversation, either marketing or business development are used instead.  Interestingly, it is very noticeable that across all the professions in North America, the sales function and activity is clearly and openly used.

What’s the difference in these roles?  Here are some basic definitions (for simplicity, all are from Wikipedia, there are hundreds of course!) –

Business Development

“Business development entails tasks and processes to develop and implement growth opportunities within and between organizations. It is a subset of the fields of business, commerce and organizational theory. Business development is the creation of long-term value for an organization from customers, markets, and relationships. Business development can be taken to mean any activity by either a small or large organization, non-profit or for-profit enterprise which serves the purpose of ‘developing’ the business in some way.”


“Marketing refers to activities a company undertakes to promote the buying or selling of a product, service, or good. In 2017, The New York Times described it as "the art of telling stories so enthralling that people lose track of their wallets".

It is one of the primary components of business management and commerce. Marketers can direct their product to other businesses (B2B marketing) or directly to consumers (B2C marketing). Regardless of who is being marketed to, several factors apply, including the perspective the marketers will use. Known as market orientations, they determine how marketers will approach the planning stage of marketing.”


“Sales are activities related to selling (or the number of goods sold in a given targeted time period.) The delivery of a service for a cost is also considered a sale.

The seller, or the provider of the goods or services, completes a sale in response to an acquisition, appropriation, requisition, or a direct interaction with the buyer at the point of sale.”

And finally, Wikipedia’s view of the relationship between marketing (and I would contend business development) and sales…

(Sales…) Relationship with Marketing

“Marketing and sales differ greatly, but they generally have the same goal. Selling is the final stage in marketing which puts the plan into effect.”

Putting all of the above into plainer English, both marketing and business development work to create the environment, often the specific opportunity, the awareness and also sometimes, the ability, for an organisation to then sell to another organisation or individual.  But that next step always comes down to an individual who yes, does sell the firms services to the client.

An Important Finding

I am aware of many professional firms on the island of Ireland who have extremely effective marketing and business development functions.  But, while important, that only touches on the process and enablement stages.  Most typically these are ‘one to many’ activities.  Is there the same level of training or professional support delivered to those who then directly and ‘one-to-one’ engage with prospective or existing clients?  This is the other side of the equation.  The professions are the only area of commerce I am aware of where direct, face-to-face selling, engagement, negotiation and associated actions such as the extension from a single transaction to a more strategic relationship are not studied and trained as a fundamental.  This can impact trainees, entry level staff all the way up to founders and managing partners.

"common approaches, standards and best practice are often not uniformly applied."

How Do We Know This?

Practice Edge spoke to many professional firms across the island over more than a year. In EVERY case, firms had considered business development and marketing. They had taken action to put in place plans and often, dedicated roles to support those functions.

However, the same firms provided far less training or support to their client-facing professionals in the same way for those most critical and revenue-generating (or losing) one-on-one meetings and conversations (the "selling" activities).

Their ability to influence, build consensus, and negotiate with potential clients and convert them into paid work was, in most cases, the senior practitioners' responsibility.

From our experience, that is a risky strategy for two critical reasons:

1) It creates a situation whereby firms rely heavily on one or a few more experienced individuals to carry the business because of their substantial revenue contribution. If one of them should leave or move on to a competing firm, their significant share of the revenue - and their experience - goes with them.

2) We found that the experience of a handful of high performers in firms was often not shared with less-experienced colleagues. That meant - just like the experienced practitioners that came before them - the less experienced had to figure things out for themselves. That, of course, takes considerable time, which is already in limited supply. It also means that common approaches, standards and best practice are often not uniformly applied.

How We Can Help

Practice Edge came about because of these findings. Today, we aim to help professional services firms - from law to accounting and management consulting to finance - grow revenue and win more new clients. We do that by ensuring that all client-facing staff - from associates to senior partners - learn and adopt a common approach to professional and ethical "selling" in less time and risk compared with more traditional methods.

We bring that all together to help firms create stronger cohesion and better engagement between marketing, business development, sales, and client development. That enables firms to differentiate themselves in the market better, create an even better client experience, and deliver superior - and more consistent - results for their firm.

You are, of course, the acknowledged domain experts and professionals in your world.  We would humbly suggest that we are the same in ours.  We believe we may be able to help you.

Have a chat with us, see if we could perhaps provide some help for your firm.  If you have everything already covered perfectly then, that's great.  But, potentially, we could help you to generate more revenue in real terms.

Jim Irving, MBA, FISM, FCIM

March 2021