The business world is full of terms that sound similar but carry different meanings — the kind of terms that newcomers (and those who should know better) are prone to trip on.
You can add “business development vs. sales” to that long list. Sales is, well, sales: bringing your product to your target market. Business development can concern anything your company does to expand its market reach.
Some finance and operations professionals use these two terms interchangeably. You’ll even see sales rep positions advertised online under the title of “business development representative.” The confusion is understandable — both involve growing your business.
At its most basic level, business development involves prospecting and lead generation. A more sophisticated program of business development will involve finding new market segments for your business to appeal to.
Business development is growing as a discipline, and putting the right emphasis on it, including making hires, can turn a tough, recovering market into a field of opportunity for your business. Striking that balance begins with understanding the difference between the terms and how to allocate resources.
The Difference Between Business Development vs. Sales, in Detail
What is Business Development?
Business development concerns everything your company does to expand its operations, from the collection of newly qualified leads (prospecting) to networking at scale. A conventional business development representative will evaluate your company’s current buyer personas, assess where they can be found, and begin the process of lead generation. Once these leads are qualified — an assessment of whether the lead is likely to become a prospect — your business development team can relay them to your sales department.
More experienced or specialized business development professionals may fulfill duties as diverse as developing corporate partnerships and carrying out in-depth research into new market segments. They can also be invaluable in times of market uncertainty. The market segments that have been with you the longest may be growing in price sensitivity, which may prompt a switch to a more buy-ready market segment. If so, careful market research will be necessary.
What is Sales?
Sales converts those qualified leads from your business devs into transactions. In SaaS sales, your sales team will likely be the first ones to make contact with a prospect, via email or cold calling, to initiate the sales process. A sales rep will then steward the deal toward closure, working to acquire the prospect as a new customer.
Maintaining Balance Between Business Development and Sales
No business can survive without having refined its approaches to both business development and sales. You can achieve the best outcomes when you keep the two in balance.
Highly active business development reps may produce more qualified leads than your sales team has time to follow up on, wasting your business development reps’ hard work. There are ways of dealing with surplus leads, such as lead scoring, funnel filters, and two-step sales. These are short-term fixes to avoid ruining your revenue prospects, but consistently having too many leads suggests an imbalance in your business dev-sales dynamic. This can be particularly ruinous to early stage startups.
The best way to maintain a balance between business development and sales is to alternate the priority you give to each one. It all depends on what growth areas you’re targeting within your company at a given moment. During periods of steady consolidation, you can then give them equal importance.
What to Prioritize, and When
While both good business development and a strong sales strategy are vital for your company, which one you prioritize will depend on the growth areas you plan to target next.
Consider prioritizing sales when your short-term ambitions correspond with one or more of the following:
- Your buyer personas are well consolidated, and you have the scope to target new customers at high volume.
- Along those lines, your buyer personas should not have suffered notable changes to price sensitivity in the last year. They must be capable of providing you with sufficient cash flow and not represent downgrade or churn risk.
- Your lead-to-close ratio is less than healthy, and your sales team/methodology needs an injection of quality.
- You have more inbound leads than you have time to follow up with.
In these instances, all signs point toward enlarging your sales team and perhaps even toward refreshing your sales methodology.
Shift that priority to your business developers when your immediate plans involve some of the following:
- You’re expanding into new industries or targeting new verticals (e.g., much larger or more complex deals) within your existing industries.
- Your product is market-validated, and you need higher lead volume to get closer to your maximum profitability.
- Your sales team is well-built and functional, and you’re looking to scale.
When trying to accomplish one or all of these things, weigh the extent of your business development needs. If you’re making a major target market shift, a business development specialist may help by providing research and making use of their existing contacts to establish your presence. If you’re simply targeting an improved prospecting yield from your existing market segments, making marginal improvements to your existing business development squad may be sufficient.
During a phase of general consolidation in your business, when you’re not pushing to scale or to penetrate new industries, you can give equal priority to sales and business development.
What to Look for in a New Business Development Representative
Perhaps you’re at an early stage of growth, or you’re gearing up to scale your business. As such, you’ve looked to source some talent and onboard a new business development representative (otherwise known as a BDR) or two. You’re not going to hire just anyone — as with any role, there are a number of principle attributes you’ll find in the ideal business development hire.
Your new business development representative will need to get up to speed with your typical buyers and your sales methodology quickly. The rep will need to make use of social selling tools to prospect effectively and vet whether it’s best to approach a prospect via cold calling or a LinkedIn message, for example. If you’re hiring them at a time when your business is expanding into new markets, they may also need the creative and analytical skills to help you refine those new buyer personas. In such a case, adaptability is key.
Strong research skills
If your BDR is going to reengage old leads, refine existing buyer personas, or craft new ones to expand your market share, they’re going to need strong research skills. If you’re targeting a new, hard-to-reach but high-potential market segment, the rep is going to need strong research skills. If you’re looking to start making more enterprise deals, your business development rep will need to identify and profile multiple decision-makers.
They’ll also need to know how to derive the greatest amount of value possible from your existing resources. For example, your CRM will have historical data that might point the way to improved prospecting. They’ll need to know how to find it.
Excellent contextual knowledge of markets
Your business development rep’s job is fundamentally to nose out long-term value for your business. The leads they qualify will, hopefully, be those likely to be customers with the highest lifetime value (LTV).
As a result, your BDR should have a high degree of contextual knowledge of the market you’re targeting. When a prospective BDR knows growth areas where your product might benefit or how to find hard-to-reach, high-value prospects, that rep can help your company grow by leaps and bounds.
What to Look for in a New Sales Representative
If your pipeline is well-stocked, and you just need to convert those leads, then you might need to hire more sales representatives. In that case, the following qualities should be high on your list:
The image of the maniacally driven salesperson, dogged and direct in the hunt for a closed-won deal, is basically the central stereotype of sales. However business changes elsewhere, the driven salesperson is an evergreen, priceless asset to your company. Hire sales representatives who have hunger and determination. It’s particularly important across the long, sometimes hard road of a SaaS sales cycle.
As with a business development representative, your sales rep will need to learn your basic methodology quickly and adapt to frequent changes. They’ll need to be able to sell through social media (particularly through LinkedIn) as well as via sales calls. From prospect to prospect, they’ll also need to prove themselves adaptable, modulating their conversational style and building rapport with all kinds of potential customers.
There’s a reason why a lot of top sales managers and enablement professionals put a premium on “grit” as a quality in their sales reps: Sales is a road paved with objections and roadblocks, and reps will need to learn fast. Nowhere is that truer than in SaaS, where the longer sales cycle and multiple channels of communication make complications routine. A certain amount of gritty resilience is a must.
Curiosity, an underrated quality in a top sales rep, is fundamental to long-term success. Your rep will address all kinds of people and will be obliged to pursue all kinds of sales strategies — and an eagerness to learn can help.
Receptive to feedback
Receptiveness to feedback is a given for hiring in either area — or in any area, for that matter. In fact, a principal reason to seek out curious, resilient sales reps is that both traits make them more receptive to feedback from their sales leads.
And being receptive to feedback is not just a question of mentality — it’s also a practical approach that your entire sales division should subscribe to. Tools like ZoomInfo’s Chorus conversation intelligence platform help home in on areas where your reps can improve their communications with prospects. The tool records rep calls, and managers can review the calls and offer advice to help that rep win deals.
When to Bring a Business Development Expert into Your Company
Sometimes, bringing in a handful of peppy new BDRs or a motivated business development manager is not enough to bring your sales organization out of the doldrums. Sometimes, you need to make a bigger transition. In these instances, your company needs a business development specialist dedicated to helping your business steer toward new market horizons.
A business development specialist helps your company position itself relative to new market sectors. Where individual BDRs will be concerned mainly with the early sales cycle, your business development specialist has a more all-around brief that goes beyond your sales organization.
Their duties may include some of the following:
Essential market research
Your business development expert will perform essential market research to discover new market segments where your product can penetrate. Your business development specialist will use their considerable market knowledge to locate high-quality, purchase-ready buyer personas who need your product and can be targeted by your sales organization.
They’ll provide this research not only to your sales organization but also to your product development and marketing departments, who may need to make changes to your company’s products or marketing campaigns to suit the new targets.
Your business development expert will be facilitating collaboration between your sales organization and other entities in your company. They will be collaborating with your CFO and other leads of finance to determine pricing and adapt benchmarks and growth forecasts to the realities of your new market segments. They’ll also be collaborating with your marketing departments to devise new channels for prospect outreach — for example, via an in-house webinar, podcast, or video series or through expanding your social presence.
Revamped strategies for penetrating new market segments
Pivoting your company’s sales focus to a new market segment is no mean feat — a business development specialist will help smooth the process. They’ll use their existing connections to create inroads in your new market segments with appropriate points of contact. This can be particularly vital if, for instance, your company is making the shift to targeting a greater proportion of enterprise clients.
Your business development expert will also be responsible for advising and coaching your business development representatives on best practices for identifying and qualifying appropriate points of contact. Knowing how to reach the right decision-makers and satisfy the right stakeholders in your new market segment is key for getting a new business off the ground. They will also help advise and coach your sales team on how to approach those points of contact, decision-makers, and stakeholders in your new market segment.
Your business development expert may showcase many of the same attributes that an ideal business development representative would. However, they will have much more experience in scaling businesses, as well as a natural ability to coordinate all the different stakeholders involved when repositioning your business.
Keeping the Balance
The idea of “business development vs. sales” is, in many respects, as much of a false framework as treating them the same.
If you give undue priority to one or the other, you’ll find either a dry well of qualified leads or an unworkable surplus of them. If you see business development and sales as identical, to be dealt with by one hybrid representative, you’re almost certain to find that hybrid rep seriously overworked and stretched too thin.
It’s the same reason few sales teams now ask sales professionals to double as account executives or customer success specialists — when you’re trying to maximize user acquisition and user retention, specialization is just more effective.
The key, instead, is to see business development and sales as two sides of the growth coin. Both have a huge role to play in a business that can approach the post-pandemic market.
Knowing how to balance your sales organization’s priorities and knowing whether it’s time to make a big change and bring in a business development specialist require an understanding of the importance of both areas. From there, you must judge whether now is the time for your business to close what it has or aggressively expand. Keeping these distinctions in mind will drive much stronger decision-making and your business onward into the best version of its future.