In Technology Review, Craig Newmark writes about his list and his view of customer service. As I think I’ve said here before, I’ve heard Craig introduce himself at more than one event as the guy who does customer service and that always gets a laugh but it is no joke. Customer service is the highest ethic of his venture. It is the highest ethic of open source. It is the highest ethic of a true community. If newspapers… and Dell… and AOL… and government remembered that customer service is their job, they’d be a lot more successful than they are.
My title at craigslist is “customer service rep and founder,” and my customer service role is at least a full-time gig. A CEO runs the actual organization now. I’ve always had difficulty articulating why I have this obsession. I work anywhere from two to ten hours a day, seven days a week, doing stuff like deleting “bait and switch” posts from New York apartment brokers, moderating discussion boards, and sharing community suggestions with the team. If you e-mail me about the site, I’ll probably write back–quickly, too….
I figure that reasonably good customer service is part of the social contract between producer and consumer. In general, if you’re going to do something, you should follow through and not screw around. As a nerd, I have the tendency to take things pretty seriously, so if I commit to something, I try really hard to stay committed.
This isn’t altruism or social activism; it’s just giving people a break….
Also, I’ve learned from the open-source movement that people want to contribute to endeavors of mutual benefit. So at craigslist, we’ve turned over a lot of control over the site to the people who use it. We seriously listen to suggestions and actually change the site in response to them….
I feel that all this is a deep expression of democratic values. From a business point of view, of course, it makes good sense, too: it lowers our costs and improves the quality of what’s on our site. Finally, it helps keep management in touch with what’s real–or at least that’s what we hope.
Unfortunately, in contemporary corporate culture, customer service is often an afterthought, given lip service only. This seems to be part of the general dysfunction of large organizations. As a company accumulates power and money, the people who are skilled at corporate politics take control of it. Customer service never seems to be highly prized by people with those skills. Maybe it’s because they lack empathy.
The key to customer service is not treating people like customers but like people. I’ve said this here before, too: When I worked for small papers in places like Burlington, Iowa, I talked with people who read what I wrote. When I went to work for big papers, I lost that connection and saw readers as people who wrote letters with crayons and tongues stuck out. That separation ruined me as a customer service representative in journalism until I got back into the conversation at eye level via blogs, where we’re each others’ customers.