Confronting the Buffet Dilemma

Seth Godin had a good post the other day on the dilemma faced by any organization that wants to grow the base that it serves:

If you want to grow the size of your customer base, you need to confront the buffet dilemma.

Any decent buffet has foods that please 85% of the population. Meats, cheeses, potatoes… the typical fare.

Once your business hits a natural plateau, it’s tempting to invest in getting more people to come. And what most buffets do is double down. Now, they have bacon, plus they have beans with bacon and turkey-wrapped bacon. Now, instead of one chocolate cake, they have three.

This is essentially useless. You haven’t done anything to grow your audience. The base might be a little more pleased, but not enough to bring in any new business. And the disenfranchised (the vegans, the weight watchers, the healthy eaters, the kosher crowd) remain unmoved and uninterested. And one person like this out of a party of six is enough to keep all six  away.

What does work? Going much deeper or a bit wider:

Deeper would mean a bacon-focused buffet, a dozen bacon dishes, including chocolate-covered bacon. Deeper would mean a chocolate-obsessed dessert bar, ten cakes, fondue, everything.

Deeper gets you people willing to drive across town to visit you. It’s remarkable. It’s not like every other buffet but a little bit bigger. It’s insanely over the top. People will bully their friends in order to get them to come.

The other choice is wider. Instead of adding a handful of dishes that mildly please the people you already have, why not add brown rice and tofu and vegetarian chili? Now you’ve opened the doors to that last 15%.

  • Penny

    How would you transfer this to a planted/growing church? Our pastor has asked Troy to help him lead the church in growth and we want to be smart about it. Our pastor is concerned with alienating the ‘base members’ who are happy with the status quo, but right now there is no system to greet newcomers and integrate them into the church, there is no ongoing women’s or men’s ministries, etc. There’s room for ministry and growth, but neither Troy nor I have any idea where to begin making smart decisions. Right now we’re pulling ideas from the Desert Vineyard as well as looking to see how we can fill the holes that we see in the church.

  • Matt


    I’d do two things — which I realize may or may not be easy in your specific situation.

    First, I think that Godin’s observations on “deepening” correspond to the fact that churches ought to go deep with their people into core biblical truths. A church should clearly define what it believes, which biblical truths are most distinctive and shaping to its philosophy of ministry, and go deep into those things with its people.

    Second, adding things like a system to greet newcomers pertains to “widening.” I would pick a few key systems to implement that would help new people feel welcomed and get plugged in. This is very important because without these, in spite of the fact that you are taking people deep, people won’t know how to become a part of that.

    It is interesting that Godin’s post corresponds well with some sound principles for effective ministry. These principles would be true regardless of Godin’s post, but his post provides some helpful terminology and categories for articulating these things.