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By Invitation Craig Newmark
M 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 di culty articulating why
I have this obsession. I work anywhere
from two to ten hours a day, seven days a
week, doing stu 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 stu .
Today, craigslist helps people in more
than 100 cities in 24 countries with every-
day needs, like nding 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 gure that reasonably good customer
ser vice is part of the social contract be-
tween 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 some-
thing, 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 bene t. So at craigs-
list, we ve turned over a lot of control over
the site to the people who use it. We seri-
ously 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 ag it
for removal; if enough people agree, the
ad is removed automatically. A similar
philosophy is embodied in the Wiki move-
ment, particularly in Wikipedia (an on-
line 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 gure 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 im-
proves 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 cor-
porate culture, customer ser vice is often
an afterthought, given lip ser vice only.
This seems to be part of the general dys-
function of large organizations. As a com-
pany accumulates power and money, the
people who are skilled at corporate poli-
tics take control of it. Customer ser vice
never seems to be highly prized by people
with those skills. Maybe it s because they
I speak with a lot of workers at many
companies, and for the most part, they
really want to provide good customer ser-
vice. But they tell me they re often pre-
vented from doing so because service is
seen as a cost and not something that con-
tributes to pro ts.
Me, maybe a lot of my motivation de-
rives from the name of our site; I take
things personally. Maybe sometime this
year I can go part time as a customer ser-
vice rep, and I could use a day o , maybe a
Sunday. But I plan to be doing customer
No matter how hard I try, sometimes
we screw up. Then we apologize and x
it. My lingering concern is that I m miss-
ing something big, and that I need to hear
about it from my team and the commu-
nity. What am I missing? ■
The founder of craigslist is obsessed
with customer service.
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.
A lot of my motivation derives from the
name of our site; I take things personally.
I plan to be doing customer service forever.
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