That it costs 5-7x more to acquire a customer than it does to retain one isn’t entirely true.

The origins of this myth can be traced back to the 1980′s when the Technical Assistance Research Project published research that stated the cost of customer acquisition vs the cost of customer retention was significantly higher.

Soon after the research was published, other institutions like the Customer Service Institute, Consumer Connections Corp., and ITEM Group all “found” similar data.

Truth is, it was mostly propaganda designed to sell high-level executives new customer loyalty programs. If you don’t believe me, try to find a single linked source that supports the 5-7x claim.


I bring this up because time & time again, I see business owners reallocating budgets based on soundbite statistics and ending up with disastrous results. If you want to see your business grow, I can not underscore the importance of analyzing your own data to establish viable benchmarks and goals enough.

In this article, I’d like to help you understand the different metrics associated with customer lifetime value, and explore how we can use this information to make more informed, data driven decisions as it relates to how we budget our marketing spend.

Even if you feel like you’ve got this nailed, keep reading, because there’s some very surprising research that I’m sure you’ll find useful.

Why Determining Your Customer Lifetime Value Is So Important

Before we get into the math let’s talk about why figuring all of this out is so important.

In this must read article by venture capitalist David Skok, he says that the biggest reason start-ups die is because their Customer Acquisition costs vs their Customer Lifetime Value costs often look like this.


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From my experience, that’s because so many businesses focus on transactional customer value, and forget to invest in the experience that happens after the conversion.

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It should go without saying that you need to invest in making the product better. But if we’re not also focusing on ways to make our existing customers happy & yes even marketing to the people who already bought from us, the cost of acquisition can greatly outweigh the amount how much we can make from a single customer.

In David Skok’s post, he says:

“Life Time Value > Cost of Acquisition. (It appears that LTV should be about 3 x CAC for a viable SaaS or other form of recurring revenue model. Most of the public companies like, ConstantContact, etc., have multiples that are more like 5 x CAC.)

CAC should be recovered in < 12 months (for subscription businesses)”

In other words, if it costs you $400 to acquire a customer you should have a plan to make $1,200 – $2,000 off of that customer within the next year.

This is why software companies like Salesforce might have a marketplace, where they’ll make between 15-25% off of apps sold through their service…

…or Moz, who partners with other companies to offer member only perks, which likely operate the same way as an affiliate program.

The point of improving your customer lifetime value, as David points out, is to ultimately create balance in your business model that allows you to offset the unavoidable high cost factors that inevitably go along with running your business.

He also emphasizes doing continuous optimization to build a sales & marketing machine.

Seriously, read his post when you get the chance.

Determining Your Customer Acquisition Costs

Ok, so now for the math. Let’s start with the basics. The simple way of finding your your customer acquisition cost is to divide the total amount of marketing dollars by the amount of actual customers that come from those efforts. (Marketing Spend/Customers = Cost Per Customer)

Of course, this is an overly simplistic view of the entire process, but if you’re not currently measuring anything, I’d recommend you at least start there.

If you want to get a little more detailed however, Hubspot provides an excellent example where they break the cost per customer down in 3 steps.

  1. Cost of Customer Visits (CoCV)
  2. Cost of Lead Acquisition (CoLA)
  3. Cost of Customer Acquisition (CoCA)

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Using Hubspot’s example, let’s say you spend $1,000 in PPC, which nets you 500 visitors. At this point, you’re paying $2/ visitor.

If 5% of those visitors convert to leads (CoLA) than your cost of lead acquisition is $40 (2/5%)

If 10% of those leads convert to customers, than your cost of customer acquisition (CoCA) is $400 ($40/10%)

Now, depending on your business, $400 will seem either incredibly high, or incredibly low – doesn’t matter – the point is, now that you have these numbers, you have the costs associated with three distinct areas of getting new customers, which can be improved upon by:

  1. Exploring new, less expensive avenues for visitor acquisition
  2. Working on conversion optimization to convert more visitors into leads
  3. Improving sales processes to convert more leads into sales

It should also go without saying that these numbers will also fluctuate for each marketing channel you invest in. Because the math stays the same, keep this in mind, as it will help you to invest in only the most profitable channels for each of your marketing endeavors.

I highly recommend you check out Ted Ammon’s article on Hubspot if you want to dig a little deeper into evaluating each channel to determine it’s worth.

Calculating Your Customer Retention Rate

This is where it starts to get fun.

If you’ve been doing business longer than a few months pay attention to your customer retention rates. Before you can determine the lifetime value of your customers, you should have some idea of how long they’re going to be sticking around.

In order to calculate your customer retention rate you need to know:

  1. Number of customers at the end of the period – E
  2. Number of new customers acquired during that period – N
  3. Number of customers at the start of the period – S

Once you have those the formula is pretty straight-forward:

CRR = ((E-N)/S)*100

So to make things simple, let’s say you started the quarter with 200 customers (S), you lose 20 customers but gained 40 customers (N) so when the period was over you had 220(E).

Using the formula we’ve got ((220-40)/200)*100=90 or in other words, a 90% retention rate. Good for you!

WARNING: Before we go any further, I must stress that you SHOULD NOT be running this calculation to find the average across your entire customer base! Broad sweeping averages like this could provide you with potentially damaging figures if you’re not careful.

The issue is that blending customers into an “average” significantly distorts reality. If you gain two customers – one with a retention rate of 100% and another with a retention rate of 0% – you can imagine how the situation would play out. The first customer would pay forever, and the second would leave right away. However, if you first average the two retention rates together, you’ll have two customers with a 50% retention rate.

From Corey Pierson on Custora

An example of what an averaging all customers together might look like is this:

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Pretty bleak, right? In 8 months you will have no customers. “Invest everything you can into acquisition, because they’re all going to be gone!”

Corey goes on to show what calculating retention rates – the right way – over 3 customer groups (Team Awesome, Team Ok & Team Sad) might look like:

This is a far more realistic & more importantly, this data makes it easier to make projections, budget allocations, and have a baseline to build strategies.

If you haven’t already segmented your customer base, I recommend reading this guide by Dee Kumar on Entrepreneur’s Journey, as it will give you some ideas around how to segment your customers.

Calculating Your Churn

On the opposite side of retention, you’ve got churn – the rate of which customers (naturally) stop buying from you.

In an ideal world, figuring out your customer churn looks as simple as this:

ending churn

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Now, if you’re not currently measuring churn, this is an alright place to start. At least you’ll have something to benchmark so you can reduce your churn rate later.

But like Steven H. Nobel talks about in this blog post on Shopify, it is not always that simple.

Variables like customers gained during the period, how long the timeframe you’re measuring, and whether or not churns are occurring evenly over the period, all factor into what your actual churn rate is.

If you want a realistic view of your churn rate for predictive analysis purposes, you need a formula that looks more like this:


with the weights being


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“What this metric is useful for is keeping track of changes in customer churn behaviour while giving a rough estimate of what percentage of your customers will leave in the next 30 days.”

If this kind of math scares you (it does for me) don’t worry, Steven gave us an interactive spreadsheet you can download to plug your own numbers into. (be sure to stop by Steven’s blog & say thank you)

It’s important you keep this data as accurate as possible in to measure the impact various retention strategies have on your customer base.

Calculating A More Accurate Customer Lifetime Value

There are several different ways to measure customer lifetime value & the infographic by KISSmetrics will cover a few in the next section.

But for now, we’ll use this really basic LTV equation:

(Average Value of a Sale) X (Number of Repeat Transactions) X (Average Retention Time in Months or Years)

Brad Sugars on offers a very simple example of a gym member who spends $20/month for their membership for 3 years.

$20 x 12 months x 3 years = $720 in total revenue (or $240/year)

Now you could use this, but if you’re a gym owner thinking a large portion of your customers would be with you for 3 years, you’re delusional.

Averages lie. Again, I can not stress enough, segment your customers if you want to get an accurate picture of the data.

If you really wanted to know the lifetime value of your members, you’d have to consider the customer segments that:

  • Pay for personal training & group coaching
  • Buy supplements
  • Pay for additional classes
  • Buys teeshirts, gear, refreshments

You’d also need to analyze this data to find correlations between the members who stay and those who churn quickly.

  • Do people who sign up for classes have a tendency to have longer retention rates?
  • Is there any relation to people enrolling in personal training and supplements?
  • Do high churn customers also buy more gear?

Finding the lifetime value of these individual customer segments will give you a very clear idea about the value each type of customer will bring to your business. Once you know that, you can make data driven decisions about how much to invest in acquiring each customer type.

Beyond that, you can use what you learn to create up-sells and cross-sells to increase the lifetime value of each customer segment ( i.e 10% off supplements when you sign up with a personal trainer, half off tee-shirts when you sign up in January)

A Hypothetical Scenario – Starbucks

In this infographic by KISSmetrics, they illustrate various ways to calculate customer lifetime value.

Disclaimer: Commenters on the original post did point out a few issues (detailed after the graphic), but there is still a lot to be learned here so please take it all in:

Even though there are some fundamental flaws, I wanted to share this with you because it is a perfect example of why you have to keep working with the data until you get something accurate.

What did the commenters find wrong?

  1. Averaging revenues + Profits (like they did with the total average) ultimately breaks the equation
  2. It doesn’t consider the costs associated with delivering the product
  3. It should factor in discounts & discounted profits
  4. The sample size (5 customers) is probably too low for a company like Starbucks

Of all the commenters, Yosh gave what appears to be a viable solution:

Imagine how much money you’d lose if the projections were wrong.

I know it’s a lot to take in, but it’s important you realize that data is unique every business and situation. It’s never as neat as using one catch-all formula and applying it across the board.

That’s why there are several different methods of calculating customer lifetime value.

Realistically, these formulas should only be used as a starting point to understand your customer behavior then tweaked to fit your business.

This is why you need a good CFO, even if it’s just in the interim.

The Effects Of Increasing Customer Lifetime Value? (Micro Case Studies)

You’ve already come a long way & I don’t want to take up too much more of your time. But I wanted to share these 3 case studies of companies seeing explosive results after nailing their customer lifetime value:


This quote on Forbes perfectly sums up everything we’ve been talking about:

“Brad Coffey, head of corporate development for [Hubspot], likens the formula to a machine: Put a dollar in at the top and the LTV:CAC ratio will tell you roughly how many dollars come out at the bottom. If your money isn’t multiplying, “you’re going to want to spend some time tuning that machine”

Bonus: 6 Quick Tips To Improve Customer Lifetime Value

  1. Use Email to Pre-emptively answer common questions, upsell, and provide customer education.
  2. Cross-market & provide lead gen for companies with similar customer bases
  3. View every customer interaction as an opportunity to improve customer loyalty.
  4. Find ways to build habits around your product.
  5. Make customer service easy. According to Harris Interactive, 56% of customers will switch brands if the alternative offered more ways to connect.
  6. Incorporate customer feedback to improve everything from user experience to product features & design.

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