When that lone customer arrives at your restaurant on a busy night, it’s tempting to make him or her wait, in favor of the party of 12 that’s sure to rack up a huge bill. But it just might not be wise.

When you’re deciding how to structure your business, who to give service to, and when to go the extra mile for a customer, don’t just consider the transaction you’re in the middle of dealing with. Consider the total lifetime of interaction with your customer. The “lifetime value” of a customer is how much you expect that customer to spend over the course of their association with you. That lifetime value is what you want to take into account when deciding how far out of your way to go. I’ve recently had a few run-ins with companies that have taken a short view, much to their detriment.

I eat lunch 5 times a week at the same deli. They discontinued my favorite kind of hot pepper, leaving no condiments that I enjoyed. I asked them to please bring them back, and they refused. I offered to buy my own jar for them to use. They refused. And I stopped eating there. Five days a week, times 50 weeks a year, times $7 per lunch is $1,750 of income a year they were happy to forgo to avoid dealing with the hassle of keeping a jar of peppers around. My new deli is part of a franchise. They are only supposed to serve their approved condiments. I spoke to the owner and he happily kept a special jar of peppers just for me. In the 3 years I’ve been eating there, they’ve made $5,000 and my previous deli has gone out of business.

My friend passes through Reno every year on the way back from the Burning Man festival. He stayed in Harrah’s because they gave him a free upgrade if they had rooms available. He then spent the money he saved in the Harrah’s restaurant and spent even more in the casino. They stopped giving free upgrades, and he changed hotels. It would cost them nothing to give him the upgrade, and instead, they’ve lost year-after-year of restaurant and casino business. Let’s not even consider how much Harrah’s would make on all the referral business my friend would bring. Smooth move, Harrah’s.

To return to the original example, while it may make sense on any given night to forgo seating one person in favor of the party of 12, if that one person dines at your restaurant three times a week, in the course of a year, they’ll outspend the entire party of 12. As unintuitive as it may seem, treating the solo customer well may be a better business decision than handling the occasional bachelorette party. And believe me—the cleanup’s a lot easier, too.

When you make decisions about your customers, do you consider their requests as separate events, or do you consider the lifetime value of each customer before deciding how much to commit to their happiness?

Know the Lifetime Value of Your Customers

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