Life is customer service

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.

  • ronbo

    Jeff —

    You say: "The key to customer service is not treating people like customers but like people."

    That sounds nice, but it isn't completely true. Customers are different from people – they're more important.

    The social dynamics between people are very different from the dynamics between marketers and customers. Marketers try to influence the behavior of strangers. People generally don't, first dates and job interviews excepted. Marketers involve themselves in customers' lives. People leave other people alone. In fact, it sounds as if Dell *did* treat you like a person – they blew you off, it happens – when they should have treated you like a customer.

    Marketers need to recognize that in exchange for inviting themselves into customers' homes, lives and pocketbooks, they need to treat customers with more respect, more concern, more … honor than people accord people in general.

    This is increasingly important, for a couple of reasons. First, as functional and pricing differences between competing products shrink, marketers will have to differentiate themselves on dimensions such as service in order to attract or retain customers. This is even more important for marketers who want to charge a premium price.

    The second reason is that as marketers capture more and more information about individual customers, it is incumbent on marketers to respect the customers' privacy and not misuse the information. Again, customers are more than people – marketers know more about you than your neighbors do.

    I do, however, take your underlying point that marketers could use some humanity. David Ogilvy (of course) said it best: "The consumer isn't an idiot; she's your wife."

    Best regards,


  • SC

    Alright, I'll say it. Anyone who says how important Customer Service is and how its the 'last line of defense' clearly has never met their customer service reps. This may just be sour grapes from being a rep for a few years at different companies, but seriously. CS is one of those things that people talk about at shareholders meetings because that's what you are SUPPOSED to say. If Customer Service is so important to you, then why are most call centers neglected, don't get the tools or the information they need?

    For the record I'm not talking about Craig, he seems like a stand-up guy with a good service.


  • ajf

    I would be more interested in what Craig had to say on the subject of customer service if he actually had customers. There is a difference between a customer and a user/reader/visitor. Craiglist has a substantial user base, but has failed miserably when it comes to monetizing that traffic. Compare and contrast with Yahoo! and Google…

    If you want to learn about customer service, study Nordstrom.

  • AJF, I beg to differ. Your definition of "customer" sounds like "someone who pays money for a good or service." By that definition, if I walk into Home Depot and leave without buying anything because I can't get service, then Home Depot isn't at fault, because I wasn't a customer!

    But I am a customer of craigslist, even though I don't usually pay them anything. The reason is that if they don't treat me like a customer, then I'll go elsewhere.

    To that end, craigslist's customer service is marvelous. For example, when I was shopping for a used car, I noticed that about half the "Cars" listings were actually for auto parts. I suggested they create a separate "Auto Parts" board, and they had done so within a week. That really impressed me and only contributed to my loyalty as a customer of theirs.

    Could craigslist make more revenue? Definitely. Would that make craigslist a better company or the world a better place? Absolutely not. Sometimes *not* maximizing profit is the soundest decision.

  • ajf

    There is only one relevant definition of customer.

    …craigslist’s customer service is marvelous. For example, when I was shopping for a used car, I noticed that about half the “Cars” listings were actually for auto parts. I suggested they create a separate “Auto Parts” board, and they had done so within a week. That really impressed me and only contributed to my loyalty as a customer of theirs.

    That sounds like incompetence on their part. You're not a customer Seamus, you're a volunteer.

  • You're a customer of any site you're on. The site doesn't care whether it has a business model in order for it to be consumed.

    Craig is making good money now and will make better in the future. Google made no money the first years, and then when the time came to monetize it correctly, they made as much money as the mints could print.

  • I ordered, from a Craigslist e-mail, a free DVD which would outline an alleged opportunity and approved the $1.49 postage cost. That turned out to be a nightmare like so many others. I’ve been billed for $39.95 twice despite the fact that I never received the DVD. I was told by a customer service representative that Craigslist doesn’t refund and that it was my fault because I ordered the DVD. Craigslist apparently refuses to stop the billing. Now I have to file another police report for this scam and a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission as well. I found nothing on the internet to be what it’s purported to be.
    Richard Lee Taylor
    Houston, Texas