Reversing the cost of the ’business development’ title

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Business development vs sales

There was a time when ‘sales’ and ‘business development’ technically meant different things. Business development was about growing new business leads, opportunities, partners and channels. Sales was about steering buying conversations to a close and getting paid.

But something happened that blurred all of that. ‘Sales’ became a dirty word. And not wanting to associate their people with that, many organisations handed out the term ‘business development’ to their sales teams so that everyone felt better about the fact that they were actually selling.

What titles get you to do

The thing is labels and titles matter. Words are ‘the stuff of thought’ (an interesting book) as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker says, and what we think, feel, and decide carves out the actions and paths we take, as well as how we conduct ourselves. Both ourselves and our buyers subconsciously react to words and labels.

It’s a bit of a jump to quote Steven Pinker and then to quote Tim from The Office, but Tim also nailed it when he told Gareth that ‘team leader’ doesn’t mean much and that it’s “a title someone’s given you to get you to do something they don’t want to do, for free.”

Is ‘business development’ conducive to developing business?

What I’m interested in most of all, is the effect of the shift from ‘sales’ to ‘BD’ on revenue-generating behaviours from those in BD teams.

‘Business development’ may provide some distance from the negative associations with ‘sales’, which solves one problem, but it’s still pretty self-serving isn’t it?

Letting your buyer know you’re in BD could still imply, “I’m here to develop MY business.” I’m not sure how often the term ‘business development’ is interpreted by either the sales person or their customer as developing the customer’s business?

If a customer’s leading thought is, “this person is here to develop her business”, then the game is set.

The point here is that titles contribute to how we see ourselves and what someone with that title should be doing as a priority.

And if what’s programmed in to you daily is to develop your own business, I wonder if it could create patterns of behaviour that may come across, or even be more self-serving, and thus limiting more customer-focused behaviours of exploration and empathy, which have been proven to be the most effective ways to develop business.

If so, your customer will notice and react.

“I’ve got to make the sale!” rarely works anymore, and certainly not in professional services. “I’ve got to diagnose, understand, listen, care and then maximise value” does.

So what can you do about this to increase your chances?

How to fix this

Well, you can’t necessarily change the labels your organisation puts on you. You can’t stop others trying to pull your strings. (And if you can change your own title go careful, because it’s easy to see through them and easy to sound totally corny. Right, Chief Fun Officers?)

But the easiest thing to do is design and reinforce your own title in your own mind. One that gets you to do what you should do well. Choose something that instantly gets you to comfortably, productively and proudly do the right thing that maximises value as you engage with customers.

You could see your title as ‘client development’, ‘client growth’, ’customer improvement’, or even ’client understander’ – if that programmes you to prioritise thorough exploration of your customer’s business so that you can provide the right solution.

And so long as it’s in your own mind, it doesn’t matter if it sounds corny, so long as you feel good about it and that it immediately gets you to act professionally, productively and in a way that delivers your highest value.

A leading mindset that says “my priority is to maximise value for my customer by providing them with precisely what they will benefit from the most” forces you to listen and understand, which changes everything.

Enjoy promoting yourself to something more useful,


P.S. If you need BD support for your professional service BD teams or customer facing consultants, contact me here.

And if you don’t have a program to kick-start your graduates off with BD behaviours then you’re missing an important piece of the puzzle, check out my site here. and my article on 13 reasons why your young professionals should build BD capabilities right now

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