There’s a statistic that’s seemingly found its way onto every marketing consultant’s lips these days. It goes something like this: 57% of purchasing decisions are already complete before a customer even calls a supplier.

Sometimes the number is even higher. I’ve seen it listed as 60%, 70%, even 90%. The problem is that the statistic lacks any real context. It’s thrown around because it serves an agenda.

What’s that? The main agenda is to push the case for inbound marketing, content marketing, marketing automation and other concepts devoted to the idea that marketing is ascendant and sales is essentially in decline.HZ

Marketing consultants are rarely rude enough to make the last part of that point, but there’s a clear implication: Buyers can educate themselves and make their own decisions. Sellers in this new world are merely needed as order takers — if indeed they are needed at all.

I’ve been skeptical of this statistic all along. It’s my belief that it doesn’t reflect reality in a complex, demanding, and high impact sale. Truly consultative sales professionals are still needed to provide guidance and perspective – to identify and clarify problems.

While the statistic may be relevant in simpler sales situations where offers are less complex, the mere number is practically meaningless on its own. Worse, it’s a distraction and a misdirection. It undermines the case for investment in advanced selling capabilities at a moment when they are most needed.

Even when the factoid is accurate as applied to a company engaged in a complex sale, it may just reflect the fact that the company is leaving money on the table. If it’s overly reliant on its buyers to make all the buying decisions, the company is probably missing an opportunity to explore new aspects of the buyer’s world and wider problem space.

With all this in mind, I highly recommend you check out Donal Daly’s spectacular e-book Battling the 57%: Deconstructing the Buyer-Seller Dance.  Daly, CEO andTAS founder of the TAS Group, beautifully captures the real dynamics of buying. He recognizes that buyers buy a wide array of solutions, reflecting different levels of complexity, risk, and investment.

The greater the organizational impact, the more relevant the salesperson’s guidance and perspective. It’s the difference between purchasing a product that will have a “micro” impact on the buyer’s  organization (such as copier paper) or something that will have a “mega” impact (like business process infrastructure). And, of course, there’s a continuum of impact in between.

The seller’s main challenge is to create value by clarifying it in the buyer’s mind. That means identifying issues and risks, costs and consequences that buyers would not have considered or fully comprehended on their own.

“As organizational impact increases, sellers have a greater opportunity to create value for their customers,” states Daly. “At some critical point, crossover will occur where the seller can create more value than the unguided buyer can accrue single-handedly.”

The future for selling organizations lies in considering what buyers have not themselves considered. If the buyer is, in fact, 57% of the way through a decision, you might want to ask yourself if the opportunity is still worth pursuing. After all, there’s a good chance that another supplier already has the inside track on the business.

If that’s the case, you can employ what the TAS group calls a “flanking strategy.” That requires you to open the door to alternative solutions. You’ll have to bring unique business value, informed by genuine insight about the customer’s needs – proposing a solution that plays to your strengths while diminishing the position of your competitor.

Still, it’s a demanding maneuver. You’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it in the first place.

Better still is to create value in the buyer’s mind by clarifying a weakly understood need or articulating an unknown need. “The opportunity to engage creatively and productively with a prospect increases when they know less about what they need,” writes Daly. “If the buyer doesn’t know there’s a problem, your sales approach can point it out to them, giving you a strong platform from which you can create value before anyone else is even on the ground to compete with you.”

As the TAS Group points out, companies are increasingly investing in account planning efforts to win this game. They think of their accounts as markets to be strategically analyzed, engaged and penetrated.

While some would preach that buyer empowerment simply comes at the seller’s expense, the reality is that strategic and insightful selling organizations have never been in higher demand.