LTV, RFM, LifeCycles – the Framework

Jim answers more questions from fellow Drillers

Want to see additional questions & answers from fellow Drillers?

Here’s the blog archive; the pre-blog email newsletter archives are here.

Q: I visited your website because I am trying to understand how to develop a customer LifeTime Value model for the company that I work at.  The reason is we are looking at LTV as a way to standardize the ROI measurement of different customer programs.

Not all of these programs are Marketing, some are Service, and some could be considered “Operations”.  But they all touch the customer, so we were thinking changes in customer value might be a common way to measure and compare the success of these programs.

A: Absolutely!  I just answered a question very much like this the other day, it’s great that people are becoming interested in customer value as the cross-enterprise common denominator for understanding success in any customer program!

If I am the CEO, I control dollars I can invest.  How do I decide where budget is best invested if every silo uses different metrics to prove success?  And even worse, different metrics for success within the same silo?

By establishing changes in customer value as the platform for all customer-related programs to be measured against, everyone is on an equal footing and can “fight” fairly for their share of the budget (or testing?) pie.  By using controlled testing, customers can be exposed to different treatments and lift in value can be compared on an apples to apples basis – even if you are comparing the effect of a Marketing Campaign to changes in the Service Center.

But are you sure you want to use LifeTime Value for this application?

Q: From what you stated on your website, I will not be able to develop a LifeTime Value model unless I understand the customer Lifecycle.  The customer lifecycle is something that I could get a good understanding from using doing a RFM analysis.

My question is, once I complete the RFM analysis, what would be my next steps in developing a customer LifeTime Value model?   At this point in time, the hardest thing that I am trying to wrap my head around are the variables to include in the model.  I visited Arthur Middleton Hughes’ website:

and he suggests the following variables (download spreadsheet, if interested):

Jim, could I simply use those variables going forward to calculate the LifeTime Value of a customer at my company?  I would appreciate any assistance you may be able to provide to me on this matter.  Thanks.

A: Well, that’s a big tangle of related issues!    Let’s unpack first, then answer the question.  First, the relationships between these ideas:

Lifetime Value versus Lifecycle – LTV is a number, LifeCycle is a trend over time that contains trigger events.  You don’t need the LifeCycle to develop (calculate) LTV, you need the LifeCycle to most efficiently and profitably act on and manage LTV issues.

RFM versus Lifecycle – RFM is a tactical model that is a “snapshot” of customer state at a point in time, the customer’s likelihood to respond.  Frequently used names for these customer states include active, lapsing, lapsed, defected.   Lifecycle is the “movie” one might put together from these snapshots of RFM states; the migration from one customer state to the next are the Lifecycle trigger points.

Now, let’s make sure we understand each one of the ideas:

LifeTime Value

Strictly speaking, LTV is not a very flexible concept and is best used for determining how much you can spend to acquire a customer and still make a profit.  This is the equation that Mr. Hughes has provided, a man by the way that I have a lot of respect for.  His model is quite detailed and useful for the purpose of finding break-even cost to acquire a customer.

To use Arthur’s LTV model, you have to find historical values and plug them in.  You could assume nothing will change and the LTV of certain segments of past customers will be the same; this is great for “benchmarking”, for example.  However, this approach is not measuring LTV, it’s predicting LTV based on historical data.  This is fine, and a valid method for certain types of analysis.

But, the premise of your question is you will be testing, and testing implies something new will occur.  So while you could use LTV to estimate results, you’d have to wait quite a while to prove the results one way or another.  LTV is really “forensic” in this way – you won’t know the final answer until the customers defect.

You could certainly go back 2 – 5 years after the tests, and prove one group had higher LTV than another, but that’s not typically a very useful approach when doing testing.

RFM (Recency, Frequency, Monetary)

RFM is a predictive model that takes a “snapshot” of the customer base and gives you a score for each customer, a prediction of likelihood to respond relative to all customers.

By itself, RFM doesn’t tell you if you are making money or not.  It is used to classify the “state” of customers at a point in time, usually for targeting purposes – are they active, lapsing, lapsed, defected?  In other words, it’s a customer segmentation tool.

For example, RFM could be used to choose your test and control groups for a campaign using Lift measurement – you would want test and control to have the same range and balance of scores.  In fact, one of the tragic campaign measurement mistakes people often make is not taking into account the likelihood to respond when selecting test and control groups, resulting in biased test results.

Customer LifeCycles

One of the great features of RFM is the idea of “ranking” customers relative to each other; this gives allocation of budget and success measurement a standard to follow.  A single  customer can have many different scores over the course of their LifeTime, with the likelihood to respond the score at a specific time.  In fact, if you looked at RFM scores over time for a single customer, you would have a clear understanding of the LifeCycle of a customer – the most powerful segmentation available in terms of message and offer targeting.

The problem with looking at RFM scores over time is complexity; the beauty of individual customer scores at a single point in time becomes unbearable when you are talking 125 different scores on 50,000 customers over 6 months.  That’s the internal or analytical problem.  Externally, this kind of information is extremely gnarly to present and explain to senior managers, it’s presentation hell.

The way I solve this problem is with a tool I call LifeCycle Grids.  The Grids takes the same fundamental drivers used in the RFM model and instead of ranking, uses thresholds or “hurdles” to classify customer states.  This creates a standardized customer LifeCycle “dashboard” so comparisons of customer value between different segments can be made more easily.  It works for both short and long term observations and is easy to represent either numerically or graphically.  And because it uses finite thresholds for activity rather than ranking, the same calculations that create the dashboard can be used to actually drive or trigger actions.

So the dashboard is actually the controller as well.  This is extremely beneficial in terms of linking presentations, plans, and results. People can literally point to a segment on the LifeCycle framework and say, “Let’s deliver message X to each person from segment Y who enters this cell” and see the results right where they pointed when the dashboard is updated.

Once you test some ideas and find out which approach generates incremental profits for a cell in the Grid, you can automate delivery of the program as customers enter that cell of the Grid.  This is the classic “sense & respond” approach to marketing communication – right message, right person, right time.

The LifeCycle Grids are demonstrated in a lot of detail for different applications in the series here, but probably of most interest to you as it relates to customer analysis, see here.

And now, to answer your question:

Which approach above, if any of these, would be best for standardizing measurement of ROI in widely diverse customer programs?

LTV would be appropriate if what you want to know is breakeven cost to acquire.  Since we are talking about customer programs, I doubt that’s what you want to use.  Plus, if you want a hard number rather than a prediction, you could be waiting a long time for the answer.

RFM is a “snapshot” model and so not really suited to long-term studies of customer value.

Customer Lifecycle models are more likely to be involved in the execution of a program, not the success measurement.  LifeCycle tracking could be (and often is) used to predict the financial success of campaigns before they have run their course, but you’re only predicting success, not delivering numbers into an ROI model the CFO would accept as “fact”.

Answer: None of the above.

What you need is an approach designed for the task, which in this case, is:

Lift Measurement or Near-Term Value

Lift is a measure of the performance of a test group of customers compared with a control group of similar customers who are not exposed to the test.  You can read more about control groups here.  In the analysis of value contributed by each group, many of the same values from Arthur’s LTV model are used – product margin, costs of program, fulfillment costs, payment parameters, etc.  However, if you are talking about a program to existing customers, cost to acquire is probably not relevant, though you might use source (campaign) to segment your test approach.

Lift is typically measured at intervals, say every 30 or 60 days, to see how test versus control populations are tracking, and can continue after the test is over to pick up residual value created in the customer.  However, this is not a Lifetime Value measurement, Lift models measure incremental contribution to LTV created by the Marketing, Service, or Operations program execution.

This means if you get lift from program test versus control, when you go back 2 – 5 years later and measure true rather than predicted LTV – after the customer has defected – you should in fact see the LTV in the test group higher than in the control group, barring any radical downstream difference in customer experience between test and control.  In this way, Lift models are actually predictive of changes in LTV.  That’s why the output of Lift models is sometimes referred to as the measurement of “Near-Term Value” and used much more often than the forensic approach of waiting for customers to defect.


All the above are core concepts in customer value measurement and management.

LTV is a measurement of net financial value contributed by a customer, and Lift measures  are like a “time slice” of the overall LTV curve.

LifeCycles are a management framework for programs designed to affect LTV, and models using Recency, Frequency, and Monetary are used to look at a “time slice” of the LifeCycle.

LTV can generally be increased in two ways: by creating more value during the existing LifeCycle, or by extending the LifeCycle.  Marketing (including Product) is typically used when doing the first, Service and Operations – customer experience and satisfaction – are largely what affects the second.

So it is completely appropriate to establish a unified approach to the measurement of customer programs intended to increase the value of a customer across all these disciplines, in order to ensure the allocation of  scarce resources to highest and best use.

A great question, and for a great cause!



Listrak asked me to do a podcast with them on these and related topics, check it out (MP3 link) here, or see list of all their Email Marketing Today podcasts here (I’m on Episode 42).

One thought on “LTV, RFM, LifeCycles – the Framework

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.