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Socialized Computing

The founder of craigslist is obsessed with customer service.
August 1, 2005

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.

Craigslist was originally a very simple e-mail list for my friends, focusing on arts and technology events in San Francisco. People suggested doing more, like job and apartment listings, so I did that; then I got more feedback – so I did even more stuff. Today, craigslist helps people in more than 100 cities in 24 countries with everyday needs, like finding a place to live or getting a job or selling furniture. With nine million unique visitors a month, it’s a big site, though a simple one. We have a pretty good culture of trust and goodwill.

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. Pretty much all world religions tell us that one moral value is to help other people if you can. I feel that customer service, even when you get paid for it, is an expression of that value, an everyday form of compassion.

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.

Anyone who feels a posting on our site is wrong, for whatever reason, can flag it for removal; if enough people agree, the ad is removed automatically. A similar philosophy is embodied in the Wiki movement, particularly in Wikipedia (an online encyclopedia whose roughly two million entries are created and corrected by the site’s users). We plan to turn over even more control of our site to the people who use it. Mainly, we need suggestions about what to do next.

Currently, we’re trying to figure out how to charge the New York rental agents for apartment listings (they’ve suggested this as a way to improve site quality) while giving a break to the smaller agents.

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.

I speak with a lot of workers at many companies, and for the most part, they really want to provide good customer service. But they tell me they’re often prevented from doing so because service is seen as a cost and not something that contributes to profits.

Me, maybe a lot of my motivation derives from the name of our site; I take things personally. Maybe sometime this year I can go part time as a customer service rep, and I could use a day off, maybe a Sunday. But I plan to be doing customer service forever.

No matter how hard I try, sometimes we screw up. Then we apologize and fix it. My lingering concern is that I’m missing something big, and that I need to hear about it from my team and the community. What am I missing?

Craig Newmark is a Web-oriented software engineer, with about 25 years’ experience in coding. In 1995, he started craigslist, a community bulletin board with classifieds and discussion forums. Today, tens of millions of people use the site for free. In high school, he really did wear a plastic pocket protector and thick black glasses, taped together.

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