Customer Lifetime Value is one of the north-star metrics for any company that aims for sustainable growth.
Calculating Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is a widespread practice among business owners and marketers. However, not everyone approaches this metric with the same mindset.
The importance of the CLV doesn’t lie in finding ways to acquire customers cheaper but in optimizing customer acquisition and retention costs.
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In his book, “Who Do You Want Your Customer To Become?” Michael Schrage emphasizes that making customers better makes better customers.
But how do you measure how good your company is at attracting and retaining valuable customers? You find out by calculating and tracking CLV.
Customer Lifetime Value is the metric that shows you how healthy your business is and how profitable your customers are. Let’s guide you through everything you need to know about this key performance indicator.
What is Customer Lifetime Value (CLV)?
Customer Lifetime Value is defined as the prediction of the net profit generated throughout the entire business relationship with a customer. CLV indicates how valuable a customer is to your business for an unlimited period instead of solely referring to value brought through their first purchase.
“Customer Lifetime Value” is also called “CLV,” “LTV,” and “CLTV” – these are the initialisms that you will see most often. Another term used to describe the same concept is “customer equity.”
No matter what form you prefer, they all refer to the same metric.
In the following sections of this guide, you’ll learn exactly how to calculate and improve CLV.
You’ll see that not all customers are profitable from their first purchase. Why? It takes time to build trust with a brand. You need the efforts of your customer success team to influence their customer journey and boost CLV, retention rates, and customer loyalty.
By comparing Customer Lifetime Value to Customer Acquisition Costs, you’ll find how profitable your business is and how much you can invest in new customer acquisition and customer retention.
Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) Explained
The easiest way to calculate customer lifetime value (CLV) would be to subtract the cost of acquiring and serving a customer from the customer revenue.
Let’s say that every year, for Mother’s Day, you send your mother the same $70 flower bouquet that you buy from the same flower shop. If you’ve been doing this for the past five years, your lifetime value for the flower shop is $350.
However, this simple formula does not always apply, as most businesses are more complex than that. There are two other methods to find your store’s customer lifetime value by calculating this metric’s historical and predictive value.
How to calculate Customer Lifetime Value
Customer Lifetime Value Formula
The simplest formula to calculate Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) is:
CLV = customer revenue – the cost of acquiring and serving that customer
Let’s say that every year, for Mother’s Day, you send your mother the same $70 flower bouquet. If you’ve been doing this for the past five years, your lifetime value for your florist is $350.
However, this simple formula does not always apply, as most businesses are more complicated than that. So two other methods have been proposed: historical and predictive CLV.
Historical Customer Lifetime Value
The historical CLV is the sum of the gross profit from all historical purchases for an individual customer.
Determining the customer lifetime value based on profit shows you the actual profit a customer brings to your store. To determine the historical CLV, first, you need to:
- Identify the touchpoints where your customer creates value;
- Integrate records and create a customer journey;
- Measure your revenue at each touchpoint;
- Add everything over the lifetime of that customer.
Then, you can use the formula below:
Historical CLV = (Transaction 1 + Transaction 2 + … + Last transaction) * Average gross margin
The historical CLV takes into account customer service costs (cost of returns, acquisition costs, cost of marketing tools, etc.). The problem with this method is that it can be complicated to calculate on an individual basis, especially if you want the figures to be up to date constantly.
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Predictive Customer Lifetime Value
A more efficient way to determine the customer lifetime value is through predictive Customer Lifetime Value.
The predictive CLV is built based on predictive analysis and takes into account previous transactions plus various behavioral indicators that forecast the lifetime value of an individual.
This value becomes more accurate with every purchase and interaction, so this is a better method to calculate customer lifetime value.
To calculate the predictive CLV, you need to:
- Identify the touchpoints where your customer creates value;
- Find out what determines that value and if it differs from customer to segment;
- Identify why a customer has moved from one moment to the next.
Then, you can determine the predictive CLV in two ways:
Simple predictive CLV:
CLV = (Average monthly transactions * Average order value) * Average gross margin * Average customer lifespan
*where the average customer lifespan is calculated in months. This formula is also used to determine the detailed predictive CLV, so let’s call it “CLVs.”
Detailed predictive CLV:
CLV = CLVs * Monthly retention rate1 + Monthly discount rate – Monthly retention rate
When calculating the predictive CLV, keep in mind is that it will never be 100% accurate as this is just a forecast.
However, if you personalize the formula for your business, you can determine a highly-accurate customer lifetime value.
Also, note that the equations above don’t take into account the cost associated with retaining a customer.
To get a net value for your CLV, you will also need to calculate this. And if you want to be accurate, you may also want to consider interaction and transactional information for each customer, as every individual is unique.
Customer Lifetime Value to Customer Acquisition Cost Ratio (CLV:CAC)
The ratio between CLV and Customer Acquisition cost (CAC) is one of the most important aspects a VC will look at before investing in your company.
You can’t acquire customers forever. So finding the right customer acquisition and retention mix is the key to sustainable eCommerce growth.
A good ratio would be 2, a bad one would be below 2, and the best ratio is 3.
If it is below 2, that means your either doing this consciously to gain market share, or your business is bleeding money.
If it’s above 3, it usually means you’re harvesting cash because your business can’t grow anymore as you are the market leader and don’t want to diversify.
Another possible explanation for this value could be that you’re too prudent and don’t want to grow faster, or you’re not aware of this, and you don’t want to go faster.
The basic rule in poker is to look at your own cards. If you’re in the eCommerce game and you don’t know this ratio, it means you’re breaking this rule.
Why is CLV important?
Measuring and tracking customer lifetime value is one of the most important actions you can take for your company. CLV is like a business health predictor, showing how strong your customer relationships are, what can drive better CLV, and helps you prevent churn at the early signs of CLV drop.
You will have more resources
The more value you generate from a single customer, the more resources you’ll have to invest in retention, acquisition, and hiring talent to fine-tune your strategies. Customer lifetime value optimization leads to sustainable growth.
Ad Costs are surging, so customer acquisition is getting ever more expensive
In the last five years, Facebook CPC has increased 8x. After Covid, more businesses invested in ads to get customers back to their stores. If you know your Ideal Customer Profile, you will train the lookalike algorithms from Facebook and Google to acquire better customers, not average customers.
Better product assortment
When you know your ideal customer, you identify the best products/ categories/ brands, and it’s easier to spot the toxic ones. Your teams know what products to add to the offer by looking at what your loyal customers prefer.
3rd-party cookies are dying, but you need to know your customers
As third-party cookies will slowly die, you need new ways to get to know your customers and have a direct connection with them. Personalization works only if it’s relevant. You need smart use of first-party and zero-party data to give unique treatments to your best customers and make them your promoters.
Better chances to access capital from investors and bankers
Customer lifetime value to Customer Acquisition Cost ratio helps you track how much it costs to attract and keep the customers. Knowing this ratio helps you make better decisions. CLV to CAC ratio is what investors look at if you want to sell or what bankers look at if you want a loan.
Customer Lifetime Value Benchmarks
After all the effort you put in to determine your CLV, you might also want to know where you stand compared to your competitors.
Although each e-commerce business is different and their customer lifetime value varies, you can use benchmarks to estimate your position roughly.
If you want constant access to updated benchmarks, you can go to our free Real-time Customer Lifetime Value (CLV) Benchmark Report.
Let’s take a look at the historical Customer Lifetime Value by industry. At the end of 2021, data shows that stores in Home and Garden had the highest CLV, while Books and Literature had the lowest CLV. You can compare your CLV to the current average CLV in your industry right now by accessing our real-time CLV benchmark report.
The historical Customer Lifetime Value by Shop Age chart shows us that stores become more agile in retaining their customers in the long run as they gain more experience on the market. It’s the natural course of things: your CLV should get higher as your shop gets older.
Looking at the historical Customer Lifetime Value by company size, it’s clear that CLV is an accurate predictor for sustainable growth. No matter how small or large your company is, you need to constantly measure, track, and improve CLV if you want to scale.
Customer Lifetime Value Examples
Our first CLV example is from a subscription-based online store that uses REVEAL to calculate and monitor CLV and other key metrics.
The graph below shows the timeline representation of the historical customer lifetime value from November 2020 to November 2021. The company managed to increase the average CLV from USD 131 to USD 200. That’s an impressive improvement, and it happened because the company started to monitor CLV and the other KPIs with a major impact on CLV, like customer retention rate or the average purchase frequency rate.
Next, we have the same store’s historical CLV by RFM segment. When you combine the customer lifetime value model with the RFM segmentation, you can go more granular to identify the potential CLV growth sources.
The average CLV is higher in the “Soulmate” segment that includes the store’s most valuable and loyal customers, reaching USD 741. A company would want to attract more customers like the best ones considering the big difference between the CLV generated by the other groups.
In our second example of CLV, we have a fashion retailer. We analyzed the same period as in the previous example and we can see that the store managed to increase its historical CLV from USD 336 to USD 359.
The fashion retailer still has to work on its retention strategy and transform more customers into Soulmates. In the last 12 months, the average CLV of a Soulmate is USD 2123, which means that a Soulmate customer is six times more valuable than the average customer.
Once you start measuring and monitoring your CLV, you can start making significant changes in your company’s strategy that could be pivotal for your business. Keeping track of your CLV helps you spot future opportunities to improve customer loyalty, attract better new customers and prevent negative trends like customer churn.
Customer Lifetime Value Analysis (Case Studies)
If you’re interested in the thought process behind a CLV analysis, we’ve detailed it in this article: Customer lifetime value analysis in Reveal vs. Excel.
Starbucks is constantly opening new stores around the world, and its acquisition strategy is frequently copied. For this case study, I am going to use data from 2004. The numbers do not reflect the company’s current status, but we can use them to exemplify how you should determine your customer lifetime value.
Step 1: Find out your average
To simplify calculations, let’s say you only have three customers:
- Customer 1 spends $4 per visit;
- Customer 2 spends $6 per visit;
- Customer 3 spends $9 per visit.
The average will be $6.33. I’ll call this value “s,” representing the average spend per customer.
For the purchase cycle, customer 1 visits you five times a week, customer 2 visits you three times a week, and customer 3 does it six times a week. The average number of visits is 4.66 (I’ll call this “c”).
Last but not least, your average customer value per week (expenditures * visits) is $20 for customer 1, $18 for customer 2, and $54 for customer 3. The average across the three customers is $30.66 (I’ll call this value’ a’).
Step 2: Calculate the CLV
To determine the customer lifetime value, I will also use some constants:
Average customer lifespan (t) = how long an individual remains a customer. For Starbucks, that’s 20 years.
Customer retention rate (r) = the percentage of customers who repurchase over a given period compared to an equal preceding period. Starbucks’ retention rate is 75%.
Profit margin per customer (p) = For Starbucks, that’s 21.3%.
Rate of discount (i) = the interest rate used in discounted cash flow analysis to determine the present value of future cash flows. Usually, the rate of discount is between 8% and 15%. For Starbucks, it’s 10%.
Average gross margin per customer lifetime (m) = Starbucks has a profit margin of 21.3% (p). If the average customer spends $31.886 (52 * a * t) during their life as a customer (t), Starbucks has a gross margin per customer lifespan of $6.791 (profit margin * expected customer lifetime expenditure).
A large corporation like Starbucks will use several methods to determine customer lifetime value, marketing budgets, and acquisition costs.
Determining your customer lifetime value is just the beginning. What you do with that information is what will determine your business’ success. Because now you know how much you should be spending to acquire a customer, from overhead to marketing.
Let’s look at Netflix. An average Netflix subscriber stays on board for 25 months and has a lifetime value of $291.25.
If you’d subscribe to Netflix right now, you would pay around $8.97 per month (that’s the cheapest price plan), which means $107.64 per year. If you were Netflix, would you spend $150 to acquire a customer?
It seems counterintuitive to spend more to acquire a customer and still be profitable, but that’s why determining your customer lifetime value is essential.
Yes, Netflix would lose $42.36 in the first year, but as I mentioned earlier, the average Netflix user stays a customer for 25 months. So even if the company doesn’t make an immediate profit, it doesn’t mean it remains unprofitable.
You shouldn’t be afraid to lose money in the short run if that can boost your revenue in the long run.
To determine how much you can afford to lose in the short run, you need to know the lifetime value of your customers. Without that number, it’s impossible to optimize your revenue.
Maximizing the customer lifetime value
Each customer is unique. Some will not pay for Netflix, not even for a month. Some might remain customers for several years, while some might never want to cancel their subscription.
Not to mention that Netflix offers three different price plans – a premium user who remains a customer for three years is more valuable than a customer who has the cheapest price plan for four years.
By tracking each customer individually, Netflix can optimize its lifetime value. For example, if you stop watching movies, they know you might cancel your subscription sooner or later.
So, they can start persuading you into remaining a customer long before you even think of canceling your subscription. By tracking the stats and behavior of users, Netflix is reducing its churn rate.
To maximize your revenue per customer, you need to track each individual. By monitoring your customers’ specific events and actions on your website, you can determine the steps or features to influence people to engage more.
Users that engage more are happy customers, and satisfied customers will remain with your company for longer.
Maximizing customer acquisition
Netflix knows their customer lifetime value and has fine-tuned their product to reduce customer churn so they can afford to spend more on marketing. For example, they pay affiliates $16 for every customer they bring in.
It might not seem that much, but consider that Netflix offers the first month for free, and many users don’t turn into paying customers after that.
So, affiliates are paid $16 for each user, whether those users become profitable or not.
However, a percentage of those users do turn into paying customers. Otherwise, Netflix wouldn’t be able to keep paying affiliates $16 or spend $2 for every click from their Google AdWords campaign.
You can’t keep dumping money into marketing if you don’t know your lifetime value metrics well.
How to improve Customer Lifetime Value
It’s cheaper to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones, especially in industries where the customer lifetime value is more important than the profit of an individual sale. Globally, the average cost of a lost customer is $243 (KISSmetrics).
64% of companies rate customer experience as the best tactic for improving customer lifetime value, followed by better use of data and personalization. There are many methods you can use to optimize your customer lifetime value, but here I will detail a few:
1. Treat your best customers differently
How would you call a world where everyone gets the same reward? Where everyone gets the same bonus, no matter how hard they work?
Well, that’s what happens if your eCommerce sends the exact special offers and discounts to all customers.
A good idea would be to incentivize customers to like you more by giving them unique treatments, ultimately increasing your chances of turning them into advocates.
That’s what Booking.com is doing with their best customers through their Genius program.
2. Offer a personalized experience
94% of businesses believe that personalization is critical to current and future success.
Let’s take a look at a case study we’ve made for Avon. The data on online surveys showed that the most significant barrier women had to buy from Avon was their distrust that the makeup would match their eyes color.
So, an actual beauty expert showed up on a triggered overlay to help them out:
The website displayed only relevant products for their eyes color, remaining consistent on the checkout:
3. Offer free returns
Free returns mean additional costs for you. But these costs need to be considered together with the extra conversions they bring and the potential to boost the retention rate.
However, to identify to whom you should offer free returns and optimize the type of products you are selling, you need to dive deep into data.
Did you know that… we empower eCommerce companies to monitor all these great metrics here at Omniconvert to help eCommerce websites extract this kind of data insights from their data. It is called Reveal, and it is a Customer Intelligence platform that’s already directly integrated with Shopify.
If you’re on a different platform, you can easily integrate it with any other platform – set up your account here>
Zappos found out that people who regularly return items are their best customers. Those Zappon clients who buy the most expensive products have an orders return rate of 50%.
“Our best customers have the highest returns rates, but they are also the ones that spend the most money with us and are our most profitable customers. – Craig Adkins of Zappos.
4. Address the reasons why orders are returned
For fashion e-commerce stores, size is one of the most frequent reasons items get returned. So many stores have implemented fitting tools and virtual wardrobes that makeup that customers cannot try on the clothes before buying.
Shoefitr, an app that helps online shoe shoppers find proper fitting footwear, managed to reduce the fit-related returns of an online footwear retailer by 23%.
Another example is GlassesUSA who lets its customers upload a picture of them and try on glasses before purchasing. And this strategy can be implemented for non-fashion-related online shops as well.
MyDeco 3D room planner is another tool that helps online shoppers try out room looks before buying furniture.
5. Provide multi-channel returns
The fit is not the only reason items are returned. Since customers will return products anyway, you should make their experience as easy as possible.
If you are an omnichannel retailer, allowing customers to return items bought online to brick and mortar stores is a must.
Customers appreciate the flexibility and convenience of multi-channel returns and are more likely to become loyal customers.
Think about it this way: when you allow your customers to return items in-store, you also take advantage of the opportunity to upsell or cross-sell. A well-thought multi-channel return strategy rarely lets customers leave the store empty-handed.
6. Reward your most loyal customers
Offering your most loyal customers rewards is a powerful way to strengthen brand affinity.
Your loyal customers are your brand ambassadors. Your influencers. Some retailers offer special discounts or private sales, but it can be simpler than that (like responding to your customers’ tweets).
ASOS has another strategy worth copying: creating an exclusive community for people who love the brand. The retailer launched #AccessAllASOS, a community that provides members exclusive access to news and events.
7. Focus on your ideal customers
The best-in-class retailers pay special attention to their VIPs by running RFM segmentation. RFM is a way to segment your customers according to their buying behaviors:
– Recency – How recent is the last order?
– Frequency – How often that customer bought?
– Monetary value – What is the total revenue you got from each customer?
Find more about this model in this short video explainer:
Loyal customers are valuable, but loyal customers who also spend a lot of money with you are even more valuable.
Here are a few benefits you can offer them after you find out who they are:
- Priority Support
- Free returns
- Free delivery
- Tailor-made offers
- Packing and dispatching their orders first;
- Notifying them about new or limited products first;
- Sending them personalized lookbooks, exclusive previews, and presentations;
- Assigning them personal shopping assistants who can help them plan their wardrobes.
- Thank-you notes or gifts
If you are interested to understand more about your buyer persona, read this article regarding how to do it. You will be able to optimize lifetime value and acquire the customers your eCommerce needs.
8. Provide outstanding customer service
I don’t think there’s a brand out there that purposely provides bad service to its customers.
Nonetheless, there aren’t many retailers that provide excellent customer service either. But they should. A study by Zendesk revealed that consumers rank quality (88%) and customer service (72%) as the two biggest drivers of loyalty.
The same study also revealed that providing exceptional customer service 24/7 is the best way to build customer loyalty.
However, few companies are trying to collect customer feedback and understand how their customers are feeling after the purchase using customer surveys.
Measuring NPS or customer satisfaction or customer effort is an effortless way to stop broadcasting but establish a two-way communication model between you and your customers.
Moreover, if you mix RFM with NPS, you can reveal some hidden reasons why your CLV is being affected. Putting your customers first will not be an option soon. It will be a vital thing to do if you want your company to survive and thrive.
Most businesses try to reduce costs associated with customer support. Hence, they make it difficult for customers to speak to someone on the phone (marketers who have tried at least once to contact Facebook Ads support can surely understand how frustrating this feels).
So improving your customer service will also boost your customer retention rate and customer lifetime value. Also, social media is an increasingly popular support channel, and many brands have a Twitter feed dedicated to resolving customer queries.
9. Acquire sticky customers
After identifying your ideal customer profile through RFM segmentation, you can improve customer acquisition by targeting customers who are more likely to buy again from you.
You may think that you can find this kind of demographic data in your Google Analytics or Facebook Insights. But, the truth is that what you are seeing there is the data regarding your visitors, not your customers.
And the customers are what matters to you. Moreover, your best customers (true lovers) are the ones you should focus your customer acquisition efforts on.
10. Build a subscription model
You may not have control over the delivery process, but you can still improve how the package looks like.
Birchbox, a company that offers monthly subscription boxes of cosmetic samples, delivers a personalized selection with a beautifully written letter in a branded box made out of Birch trees.
Another well-known retailer that invests in its packaging is Net-a-Porter. Many customers are so in love with their beautiful boxes that they can’t help posting their orders everywhere on social media (which, by the way, is an excellent method to increase customer loyalty and advocacy).
11. Diversify your product offering
As you can see, optimizing your customer lifetime value goes hand in hand with optimizing your retention rate. And the retention rate is improved when you make your customers’ lives easier.
If you identify the buying patterns of your most important customers, you can free them from the need to use other websites or channels to acquire the goods they need.
Uber is one of the companies that have diversified beautifully.
From the need to get a ride to the need to have food delivered to your door.
Customer lifetime value is more important than you think. It impacts customer retention rates, helps boost brand loyalty, and, overall, ensures your business remains profitable and increases the overall business valuation.
So, if you’re not actively monitoring and trying to improve your CLV, now is the time to start!
Frequently asked questions
Customer Lifetime Value or CLV is defined as a prediction of the net profit a customer can generate during the whole relationship with a company. The simplest customer lifetime value formula is to extract the cost of acquiring and serving a customer from the customer revenue. Let’s take, for example, a pet owner who orders every month, for the past three years, the same product type and quantity of food that costs $100. If the cost of acquisition was $60, then the lifetime value for the pet shop is $3,540.
Customer lifetime value is a metric that helps businesses measure, monitor, and predict the value a customer brings for the company through all the purchases they make for an unlimited period. This predictive metric of the net profit a customer could generate helps you understand how well your retention efforts and loyalty programs work.
There are several ways to calculate customer lifetime value. The most simple formula is CLV = customer revenue – the cost of acquiring and serving that customer. But there are two other formulas that reflect the complexity of a business, historical and predictive CLV. The formula for historical CLV is (Transaction 1 + Transaction 2 + … + Last transaction) * Average gross margin. The formula for predictive CLV is CLVs * Monthly retention rate1 + Monthly discount rate – Monthly retention rate.
Customer lifetime value is one of the most important KPIs for a business, and it measures the net profit a customer brings during their relationship with a company. CLV is important because it reflects how good companies are at retaining customers and increasing their value in the long term. Monitoring CLV allows businesses to measure their marketing efforts’ success and adjust tactics for CLV optimization.
The most simple formula for CLV is customer revenue minus the cost of acquiring and serving that customer. If you want to measure the historical CLV, the formula you want to use is (Transaction 1 + Transaction 2 + … + Last transaction) * Average gross margin. To calculate the predictive CLV, you can use the following formula: CLVs * Monthly retention rate1 + Monthly discount rate – Monthly retention rate.
To find if you have a good customer lifetime value (CLV), you should always compare it to the Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC). If you calculate CLV by the net margin, your CLV should be three times greater than your CAC.
The basic customer lifetime value formula is customer revenue minus the cost of acquiring and serving that customer. However, your business is more complex than that, so you might want to use the historical and predictive CLV formulas.
Customer value is typically measured by analyzing various factors that contribute to a customer’s overall lifetime value (CLV). This can include metrics such as customer acquisition cost (CAC), average order value (AOV), customer retention rate, and customer churn rate. By understanding these key metrics, you can calculate a customer’s expected revenue over their lifetime and compare it to the cost of acquiring and retaining that customer.