There is understandable confusion among lawyers about the difference between Sales and Marketing

First, lawyers still struggle to understand marketing, as demonstrated by the fact that most lawyers' marketing considerations are limited to one of marketing’s four P’s: marketing communication and other forms of Promotion.

Law firm marketing departments still have little or no role in defining the other three Ps:

  1. what services (Product) the firms should/will offer,
  2. how they will Price them, and
  3. how best to distribute those services and go to market (Place).  

In either context – individual lawyer activity or institutional business function – selling remains the new kid on the law firm block. Many lawyers still have difficulty getting the “S” word out of their mouths, preferring the less culturally threatening euphemism, “marketing” or "business development." Even lawyers who aren’t burdened by these concerns innocently use the two terms interchangeably.  

When I ask lawyers to differentiate the terms, their answers reveal a gut-level appreciation that marketing is somehow broader, more diffuse, while selling is more focused and has more to do with immediacy and closure. (I have no idea what percent of lawyers share this visceral perception. Perhaps it’s just a characteristic of those who opt for sales training.)  

So, for law firms, is the difference between marketing and sales merely semantic and, therefore, unimportant? I’ll argue that the difference is both meaningful and important.  

Marketing Defined

I define marketing as a continuous, closed-loop lead-generation process:

  1. Define demand, 
  2. Profile and identify specific groups most likely to experience- and act on that demand;
  3. Understand the language that those profiled use to articulate a) the business problem, opportunity or other basis for their need or desire and b) their basis for preference among competing offerings;
  4. Translate our understanding of demand and preference into desirable products and services that enjoy competitive advantage within their categories and markets;
  5. Price those offerings to sell profitably;
  6. Distribute and otherwise bring those offerings to market efficiently;
  7. Communicate all of the above to profiled buyers through trusted channels;
  8. Communicate qualification information to sales to help guide their decisions about how they will allocate scarce sales time and resources;
  9. Obtain feedback about sales receptivity or resistance, competition, usage and satisfaction from sales channels and buyers; and
  10. Use that feedback to inform Step 1 and begin another cycle, continuously improving.

Sales Defined

By contrast, I define sales as a continuous, closed-loop lead-conversion process:

  1. Make contact with receptive members of the profiled market segment;
  2. Test the buyer’s willingness to acknowledge the demand-triggering problem or opportunity cited in marketing communication to this buyer group;
  3. Investigate this stakeholder’s perceived cost of doing nothing, i.e., the presence or absence of a compulsion to act, e.g., the perceived strategic, operational, economic and emotional consequences of the demand-triggering problem or inability to exploit the opportunity;
  4. Discontinue sales investment if the cost of doing nothing is low enough that the buyer has the option to delay or avoid action;
  5. Identify all other decision stakeholders and facilitate aligning them behind a smart, self-interested business decision whether or not to commit to invest in a solution and take action;
  6. Relate our solution offerings to the business situation, needs and limitations;
  7. Obtain agreement that our solution will produce the desired outcome, and that our collaboration will be successful culturally;
  8. Define the mechanisms by which the buyer prefers to implement the action decision;
  9. Monitor solution implementation and client satisfaction; and
  10. Feedback all of the above to marketing for inclusion in their process.

Law firms need to define these functional roles in a way that separates their responsibilities clearly, and brings a hard business approach to the three major areas of acquiring and retaining clients: Marketing, Sales and Implementation.

Law firms need to define these functional roles in a way that separates their responsibilities clearly...

All three of these areas have tactical, strategic and competitive dimensions, which we can classify as follows: 

  • Tactical: Issues relating to “product,” including features, advantages, benefits and differentiation.
  • Strategic: Issues relating to specific business and industry applications.
  • Competitive: Issues relating to relationships between you and the client or the competition. 

One critical element is knowledge of the client’s business and industry. To allocate the firm’s resources efficiently and minimize duplication of effort, the firm should focus on the differences among sales, marketing and implementation rather than their similarities. 

Marketing's Focus

Marketing’s focus should be on service offerings and organizations. Targets include industries, market segments and demographically defined clients. A marketing campaign should include the strategy and tactics involved in identifying and qualifying opportunities, while simultaneously positioning your services.  [By positioning we mean: 1) Mind share -- your identity in the client's mind. 2) Competitiveness - your position in relation to competitors.]

Marketing's responsibility is to differentiate you clearly from competitors and offer reasons for clients to think of you first in your field. Marketing bears the front line responsibility of identifying who you are, what you do and what opportunities exist in the marketplace. Marketing must also establish a connection between prospective clients and you. It's best if you can develop an actual dialogue with potential clients. 

On the other hand, Marketing must make the initial decision about who you want to select as potential clients. That is, which opportunities represent the best chances for mutual success and an estimation of general need and desirability as a future client. This also includes, at the tactical level, information regarding your services, the firm and benefits of choosing you. 

Finally, Marketing must present the unique business value of your services, and differentiate the firm apart from its products and services. This is where value selling begins. The result of good marketing should answer four questions:

  1. Who are you?
  2. What you do?
  3. Why are you different? 
  4. Why should I care?

Sales's Focus

Sales builds on the foundation laid by marketing to answer a fourth question: Can you win the business? The focus is on the intricate fit to the specific business and the political realities that determine your chances of future success.

Sales realities include developing enough understanding of the client's business to be able to determine whether the problem under discussion is sufficiently important to require any decision and, if so, on what basis the prospect would find your solution more desirable than the competition’s. 

Sales must also determine if strong enough relationships of the right type exist at various levels within the buying organization to offer a realistic opportunity for success.

Will your influence and relationship survive the inevitable problems of a business marriage? This means that sales must understand the political nature of both organizations and their potential compatibility during the initial engagement and throughout the hoped-for life cycle of the business relationship. Otherwise, serious account development will be very difficult, producing a short-term, low yield account.

Sales must also gain access to and get to know the people who can articulate the prospect’s business problem in terms meaningful enough to enable a decision, and be able to facilitate alignment of the decision stakeholders around an optimal decision that allows each to succeed personally and organizationally. Sales must also determine mutually acceptable terms and conditions upon which to base the business transaction with that account, and enable favorable terms for future business.

Finally, sales must determine if this is a good use of sales time and resources now. Is there a compelling reason for the client to make a decision in a defined time period? 

Implementation's Focus

The final phase of client acquisition focuses on how to measure the client's success with your service solution. Notice that the focus is the client's success. The terms and conditions agreed to by sales should ensure your success. Now it is time to perform on our commitments to the client.

The implementation team develops the relationship at the service, business, company and political levels. This means that they continue to grow with the account by fulfilling the role of a resource provider at the business and personal level. Not only are services’ success essential, but to become a valued resource you must also ensure you are doing your part to promote the individual success of each client.

In the competitive dimension, you must team with your allies within the account to anticipate, resist and isolate competitive attempts to take business away. Once you are the visible supplier you become everyone’s target. Client retention is an area where many good sales and marketing efforts fail.  Statistics show that it is cheaper to keep profitable business (not “any business”) than to replace it. This requires an emotional commitment to your client. You must care about keeping them. 

A proactive approach to ensuring continuous instant success is essential to a high level of client retention. As you did throughout the sales decision process, after the sale you must reinforce your position as a consultant or advisor, committed to knowing their business even better, helping identify and solve problems, being innovative in supporting clients’ success and continuing to help them grow. Constantly update the political map and make adjustments to your strategy if the political or business climate changes. individual 'owns' an account. It is everybody's responsibility to acquire and retain clients. 


Despite the cavalier use of expressions like “my client,” no individual "owns" an account. It is everybody's responsibility to acquire and retain clients. Everyone in the firm owns stock in every account and must do their part to ensure its increasing value.

Often, some individuals perform parts of all three elements (sales, marketing and implementation) of client acquisition and retention. It is prudent to remember that you are performing three distinct functions. Otherwise, it becomes increasingly likely that one or more of them will be done badly.

Let's summarize marketing, sales and implementation:

Marketing - focus on positioning

  • Establish your identity 
  • Defines products/services 
  • Communicates benefits 
  • Establish general or categorical need 
  • Pre-qualify opportunities 
  • Differentiate from competition 

Sales - focus on business and decision issues

  • Determine business fit 
  • Tailor to specific needs 
  • Establish business value 
  • Develop terms and conditions of doing business 
  • Create business relationship 
  • Establish political alignment with client 

Implementation - focus on facilitating client success

  • Fulfill commitments to clients 
  • Perform activities necessary to make client successful with your services 
  • Develop lifetime business relationships that create future business 


[Mike O'Horo is the co-founder of RainmakerVT and has trained 7000 lawyers in firms of all sizes and types, in virtually every practice type. They attribute $1.5 billion in additional business to their collaboration. His latest innovation, Dezurve, reduces firms’ business development training investment risks by identifying which lawyers are serious about learning BD.]