Take a look at the stock chart for restaurant industry solutions provider OpenTable and you’re likely to assume that the world is a pretty good place for OpenTable right now. OpenTable has been a hit with investors since going public, and its 126 price-to-earnings ratio brings back memories of the .com boom.

But behind the scenes, questions are being raised about OpenTable’s value proposition to the restaurateurs it serves.

Mark Pastore owns a popular San Francisco restaurant, Incanto. Last month, he wrote candidly about OpenTable and his conversations with other restaurateurs:

Only one of the dozen or so I spoke with said he felt that OpenTable
increased the value of his restaurant and that he wouldn’t imagine
opening a new project without it. The rest were less than happy. The
recurring themes were the opinion that OpenTable took home a
disproportionate (relative to other vendors) chunk of the restaurants’
revenues each month and the feeling of being trapped in the service, it
was too expensive to keep, but letting it go could be harmful. The GM
of one very well known New York restaurant group, which spends
thousands of dollars on OpenTable each month, put it to me this way,
“OpenTable is out for itself, the worst business partner I have ever
worked with in all my years in restaurants. If I could find a way to
eliminate it from my restaurants I would.”

In looking at the economics of using OpenTable, Pastore argues that the service is a loss to restaurants, and he also questions the wisdom of allowing a third party to own and exploit customer relationships.

On paper, a lot of what Pastore writes seems to make sense, even for those of us who don’t run a restaurant. But lest anyone believe that there’s a silent majority of restaurateurs who are dissatisfied with OpenTable but too scared to drop it, Dan Simons, a managing partner of a popular restaurant, Founding Fathers, offered a different perspective last week:

What those that participated in Mr. Pastore’s survey don’t mention (and the one
member of the dozen that felt OpenTable increased the value of his restaurant
probably knows) is what we have found to be the most important ingredient to
OpenTable’s recipe: the software.

Simons goes on to explain that, when taken full advantage of, OpenTable’s software “is a catalyst to optimize your FOH operations: the analytics, the metrics,
data and health of the business
” and he backs it up with numbers from his restaurant:

…the easiest conclusion we can convey is that at Founding Farmers, sales are up
15%, yet the monthly cost with OT is still the same.  Realize that this is a 15%
sales increase in a restaurant
that was already extremely busy.  The optimization utilization of the software
was the catalyst for the sales increase; we could not have been as busy through
this analytical lens without the OT software.

To obtain these results, Simons’ restaurant brought in an OpenTable specialist, and made a concerted effort to learn the software. Only by doing that were Simons and his partners able to prove to themselves that OpenTable “is so much more than an expensive reservation system” and that the $6,000 they spend each month on OpenTable is a worthwhile expenditure. Unfortunately, as Simons notes, the vast majority of restaurants probably don’t take advantage of the software the way his did, and for better or worse, OpenTable doesn’t seem capable right now of making sure that all of its customers do.

This highlights a key point for all businesses: value is in the eye of the beholder. Your product may be questionably expensive to some customers while at the same a great value to others. How is that? In many instances, as may be the case with OpenTable, wildly differing perceptions about value are the result of different customer use cases. Happy customers may understand and be taking advantage of your full offering, while those who aren’t happy may not know of and use the most valuable parts of your offering.

There are two general ways to address this type of situation: increase the number of customers who are in a position to take full advantage of your offering, or modify your offering to support different use cases so that what different segments of customers pay for and the value they receive from what they use are better aligned.

OpenTable’s ability to thrive over the long haul will most likely require that it do one of these two things. After all, even companies that have wide moats protecting them from competitors should remember that few things promote long-term success like happy customers.