Why Founders Don’t Like to Give Up Customer Service

I read an interview recently with Craig Newmark, founder of CraigsList, and he mentioned that on a day-to-day basis he still does customer service, in fact, I think it’s his primary responsibility now, despite all the success the site has had and the ability to hire people.

It seemed interesting to me, and maybe for a second I wondered why he remained in it instead of sitting on an exotic beach somewhere.

But a large part of me sympathized with the fact that the founder of a great company would still be doing customer service long after the business was profitable, sustainable and actually extremely, wildly, historically successful.

As a founder of a company, I know that customer service is the hardest thing to let go, or to release into someone else’s hands because when you do something yourself and you’re building, with your own sweat and time and energy, something that’s yours, and your “baby,” you tend to go the extra mile.

For the better part of our company’s existence, I’ve been the frontline person that answers customers questions. Only in the last couple of months have I turned the bulk of that responsibility over to one of our team members so I can work on our “process.” But I still try to man our Live Chat, answer emails and chime in at our forum as often as I can.

So however far away I get from those activities, I feel an internal pull BACK to them. It’s just a natural occurence for a founder I think …

Here are several reasons why I seem to always return back to doing customer service ….

  • I love what I do, I love our business, and I love our customers who support us and want them to get the best, most friendly help possible.
  • It helps me keep in touch with them, their questions and needs. And I always gleam some insight into how we can improve our products or sales process for them.
  • I think every now and then people enjoy knowing the guy in charge is helping them personally – in fact, in our Live Chat, sometimes people ask who they are talking to and are often delighted to know it’s me. I kind of dig that personally but also for them and their experience with us. (I mean, imagine how cool is it for CraigsList people to talk directly to Craig?!)
  • It’s one of the cheapest, most effective ways I’ve found to build a fan club, or raving fans, or, heck, job security! One of the few things I could lavish on customers in our first few months was SUPER fast response time (like 3 minutes or less) to their emails to us, which everyone valued and appreciated. (Something my buddy Brian Gardner taught me.)

And THAT’S why it’s so hard to let go of customer service as an entreprenuer and founder!

So once we were able to hire someone dedicated solely to customer service and support, we tasked him with one of the most important and vital responsibilities in our business: BUILDING OUR FAN CLUB.

And ultimately, to treat our customers as I treated them … which I’ll admit, was a bar I tried to set extremely high!

UPDATE: Moments have clicking Publish on this post, at 3:30 a.m. in the morning, I got an Instant Message from one of our early customer asking me a support question. Did I forget to mention … customer service never stops!

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  1. Hi Cory,

    Interesting post.

    I had a recent interaction w/ the CEO of Glance Networks that I think demonstrates a risk that comes w/ supporting a product or service that is close to the heart.

    Here’s a link to the email exchange: http://goingoverthetop.posterous.com/

    My sense is that it got personal for him at the end. Curious to hear what you think.

  2. Tony, thanks for this … I can tell you that founders/CEOs are are not always on our “A” game and we are definitely sensitive about our “baby.”

    It seems like from the email exchange that they respondly pretty well and fast with good remedies for the problem until that one remark near the end.

    So I can learn myself … how do you think he could have handled it better? Would/will you continue to use the product(s)? What would have been the ultimate scenario?

  3. Hi Cory,

    Your questions are a productive way to look at this issue. This sort of discussion was my hope when I reached out to you and others.

    I often hear that good customer support is driven from the top – if the right message is delivered by management, service would not suffer. Through increased accessibility, social media brings greater scrutiny to the messages being sent to employees within an organization. So, here we get direct insight into top management at Glance. The message from the CEO is clear and it’s not about strong customer service skills.

    To your questions:

    How could he have handled it better?

    Well, it’s possible that our users would just not want to use a service that is limited to 9-5 support. But if Rich remained objective and listened to the issues, at least our decision would be based purely on the facts. He had 2 chances to hear that the main issue was support time. Instead, these are the messages I received from him:

    – He was qualified and interested in fixing the technical issue – He dove right in to debug what was no longer relevant. He offered some great insight and clearly spent time researching the problem. But it was effort spent in the wrong area.

    – He was not adept at delivering difficult answers – When I redirected him to the availability issue he bristled, stating their official hours, where they were posted on the site, and why their service is better than competitors w/ automated attendants.

    – I am fortunate that he offered his technical expertise – He basically said I should be grateful that he took the time to diagnose our problem given that my short term commitment of a Day Plan was not a compelling reason for investigation.

    – My business was not important to their bottom line – See above point.

    – Our user request for more available customer support was unreasonable and ill-placed – Rather than acknowledge that the support our users needed may have only been minor and could have been answered by a less qualified rep, Rich told me why his plan is better and that he is really, really qualified (add another ‘really’ to that – a PhD in Electrical Engineering is very impressive).

    – He was not getting the respect he felt he deserved – He had to say he was a EE PhD and he updated his sig to include ‘CEO & Founder.’ This one is almost comical in its familiarity – “Techie hears only the nuts and bolts and not the softer issues, talks down to customer, and states his credentials.” Nothing new there. The uniqueness here that it is the leader of the company doing the talking. The irony to me is that if he had not mentioned his degree or his title I would have just recognized this as yet another support guy missing the bigger picture and antagonizing the customer.

    Would/will you continue to use the product?

    Here is a response from one of our users after reading Rich’s last post: “Unbelievably arrogant! No more business for them.”

    Thing is, I was looking forward to going to a monthly plan w/ Glance. My colleagues are so turned off by Rich’s approach that I’d have to sell them on trying it again. Why would I put myself in that position now? We’ve evaluated several conferencing tools and we’ll just settle w/ our second choice, GoToMeeting.

    I also shared the thread w/ my former colleagues, who recommended Glance to me, and my wife, who writes and does interviews about customer service. One former colleague was literally about to walk into a Glance session when he saw a post on Facebook which linked to my email thread. He posted an unfavorable comment and probably had some things to say to the participants just before the Glance session started.

    What would have been the ultimate scenario?

    It’s funny. After I got Rich’s 2nd to last response I was pleased that he took the direct user feedback so well. I was a hesitant to send direct quotes to him the way I did but he was so approachable and informal that I thought he’d appreciate hearing straight from the mouths of users.

    I don’t have a perfect response to lay out here, but I’ll quote one Twitterer – “Seemed like he lost his cool. Sounded arrogant to me. IMHO, in cust svc, yr focus shld be solving the cust prblm, not ‘winning’ the argument. Even If you win the argument, you lose!”

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