Game of Probability: The Critical Difference Between Marketing and Sales / Sales / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Should marketing and sales be used interchangeably? My argument is no. Here's how they differ, and why it matters to understand.

Most companies tend to lump sales and marketing departments together.

I’ve seen a number of “VP, Sales and Marketing” and similar positions and often hear the terms used almost interchangeably in common conversation.

On one hand, it makes sense, both departments are focused on the acquisition of new business, both use the power of persuasion and messaging to recruit new customers, and both are usually pursued with a “surplus” budget that waxes and wanes with company performance.

But should these two terms be used interchangeably? My argument is no.

There are tons of superficial reasons I could use to illustrate the difference, but there’s one critical distinction that often gets neglected.

Related Article: Using Sales and Marketing Automation to Improve Your Bottomline

A Game of Probability

Let’s consider the strategy of customer acquisition to be a game of probability. In this game, every person who’s never heard of your brand has a zero percent probability of buying from you.

The goal is to increase this probability to 100 percent, at which point the customer will buy from you.

This is essentially a breakdown of the main goal of both sales and marketing: getting more customers to buy from you.

Here, then, is the critical distinction. Marketing is designed to increase this percentage as high as possible, while sales is designed to take advantage of this percentage when it reaches a critical level; think of it as the backswing and follow-through of a successful golf swing.

Allow me to illustrate this difference with a handful of examples.

Example 1: The Zero Percent Customer

One of the most crucial factors for the success of a sales strategy is the quality of its leads. Under my figurative scenario, the quality of a lead can be translated to the percentage likelihood that a customer will buy from your company.

Therefore, the higher the percentage, the better a salesperson can do his/her job, but it isn’t the salesperson’s job to increase this percentage. This is why it’s a reasonable complaint to identify and criticize “bad leads.”

Let’s examine the difference with a hypothetical “zero percent” customer. This customer has never heard of your brand, and currently has no interest in your product.

A salesperson will be able to do nothing with this person, they wouldn’t waste their time. The marketer, on the other hand, sees this as a critical opportunity.

The right ad, the right brand visibility, or the provision of helpful materials could instantly increase this percentage.

Related Article: How Content Marketing is Changing Marketing-Sales Alignment

Example 2: The B2B Conversion

Now, let’s explore an opportunity that separates the roles of marketer and salesperson even further: the conversion of a B2B prospect.

When a prospect fills out a form to request more information, you can consider that prospect to have a guaranteed minimum percentage likelihood of buying from you. After all, they’ve taken the time to reach out.

This qualifies the new lead as worthy of the salesperson’s time, because there’s a reasonable chance they’re going to buy from your company.

The marketer, on the other hand, doesn’t worry much what happens at the other end of that conversion; instead, they’re worried about making more conversions happen by increasing that percentage among key demographics.

Example 3: Repeat Purchasers

Marketing and sales are both worried about more than just customer acquisition; customer retention is just as important, and some would argue, more important.

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. Assume a purchaser is satisfied with their purchase from a functional standpoint. At this point, they have a certain percentage likelihood of buying from you again, let’s say 60 percent.

As a marketer, you might use things like retargeting ads, social media follow-ups, or email blasts to increase your brand visibility and therefore increase this percentage to 70 or 80 percent.

That’s because your main job is increasing the likelihood of purchase, from new customers and old ones alike.

As a salesperson, you don’t care for this percentage likelihood as much as you do winning a new sale. Accordingly, you’ll follow up on an occasional basis to see if the customer is interested in further purchases.

Deviations and Weaknesses

There are a handful of problems with this extended metaphor. For example:

  • Marketers of B2C businesses can easily do the work of salespeople by increasing the “buying likelihood” to 100 percent.
  • Salespeople in a B2B industry might similarly work to increase a buying percentage with small gestures like thank-you notes or birthday cards.
  • Buying percentages are loose figures that can fluctuate regardless of the efforts of either marketers or salespeople.

Still, I believe this critical distinction is relevant and holds together nicely.

Related Article: How Content Marketing is Changing Marketing-Sales Alignment


The bottom line here is that marketing is about increasing the probability of sale, while sales is about closing the deal from that percentage.

It’s not a perfect analogy, and there is some overlap between the two departments, but understanding this distinction can help you separate these departments in your own business and strategize accordingly.

Once you relieve marketers of the pressure of closing a sale, and make sales jobs easier by providing stronger leads, you’ll see a much smoother flow across your entire customer acquisition division.

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