She prides herself on the personal touch she can offer the clients of her company, but Merje Shaw will have to delegate more as the business grows. She asks our panel of IoD members how best to manage client expectations of her time and reassure them that the service they receive won’t be affected
Merje Shaw’s first job was at a fledgling telecoms business based at Tallinn University of Technology in her native Estonia. That business was Skype, which would later be acquired by Microsoft for $8.5bn (£6.1bn) – a deal that turned out to be a bargain.
That experience, she says, taught her a valuable business lesson: “I learnt what having a single-minded focus can do for a company setting out to disrupt an industry from the inside.”
Shaw (pictured) later moved to London with her husband, where they worked with a number of digital agencies to help clients such as M&S and Barratt Homes make their websites more user friendly.
“During this period it struck me that companies working with big agencies don’t necessarily receive the best service,” she recalls. “All the senior agency people will go to pitch meetings and say all the right things to win an account. Then they’ll hand down the work to more junior members of the team. That can be OK if what they do is overseen at senior level, but these firms can also farm out the work to smaller agencies. I thought we could do things a bit better than that.”
With this in mind, the couple started their own agency in 2013. Today she is managing director of Path59, which is so named partially “because 59 degrees north is the latitude of my birthplace. A lot of what we do revolves around improving ‘customer journeys’ on companies’ websites. We also help businesses that don’t really understand how digital fits into what they do. I speak to a lot of IoD members who’ve heard about blockchain, for instance, and are wondering what it could mean for them.”
Shaw, who is an IoD 99 member, adds: “We employ only three permanent members of staff, but we work with a large pool of freelancers who are specialists in their own fields. Whenever we need to bring someone on board for a project, we get the person with the right skills.”
Until now, Shaw has been able to work closely with clients, giving them the level of service that she felt the bigger agencies weren’t providing. Inevitably, as her firm grows and the demands on her increase, there is only so much time she can give each client.
This prompts her question for our panel:
“How can I communicate to my clients in such a way to reassure them that, while I won’t be doing all the work for them myself, its quality won’t be affected?”
IoD members give their advice:
Founder and MD, Addidi
In my experience, clients are smart enough to know that you can’t do everything. We have a team structure at Addidi. All of our clients know that they will be looked after by a number of people, not me alone. They understand that I’m responsible for strategy and others will deliver it.
The key, then, is to create a narrative that explains how your business works and what its clients can expect. This needs to incorporate the USP you’re bringing to the relationship. Share it with new clients first – they won’t know any different, so the narrative should work. This way your workload won’t continue to increase. Then be upfront and honest with your existing clients.
Anna Sofat is a member of IoD London
My best advice would be to hire people with more experience than you and charge less for their work. Senior colleagues, who may serve clients better at a lower cost than you, will be valued. This will free you to provide more strategic advice and deal with any crises.
There will always be clients who demand more of your time, but they will have to pay a higher rate for it.
Ronel Lehmann is a member of IoD 99
The people you recruit and trust to work for you are at the root of the issue. While you still have a small core team, you’re in an ideal place. You need to start by converting your people into believers in what makes you you: your passions, values, methods and commercial attractiveness. You cannot clone yourself, but you can replicate your values through your team. This is the only way to ensure a lasting legacy, as one day you’ll move on – and there will need to be real value in the business, not an individual.
John Sheath is a member of IoD Isle of Man
Business transformation and digital director, IFS
With growth, you cannot be deeply involved with all your clients. Of course, this is counter to the insight you felt was missing at the bigger agencies. A brand is best defined as a promise delivered, so you should speak with your clients and clearly define “delivery”. The clichéd Smart acronym holds true here, but focusing on its “achievable” element will help you to maintain brand equity and avoid the “over-promise and under-deliver” trap. Moreover, your background working with organisations on “customer journeys” will serve you well as you fulfil your clients’ needs.
Dowshan Humzah is a fellow of the IoD
Anna Britnor Guest
Sales growth principal, Leading Edge Coaching
You’re familiar with modelling the stages of a “customer journey”, so why not use these to build a framework for client engagement and project delivery? For each stage, define who will do what in your team and identify the checkpoints, milestones and success factors. Once your model is in place, articulate it positively to clients. Ensure that everyone in your team understands how to work to the client’s objectives and introduce them to the client at an early stage to help them build credibility. Check in with your team and the client at agreed points to spot potential difficulties and deal with them, rather than getting dragged in once they become real problems.
As your business grows, recruit people who share your beliefs about quality and client engagement. When combined with clear processes and expectations, this will help you to build trust in your team. In turn, this will help you to step back from the client, while also remaining visible and engaged at the times you can make the most difference.
Anna Britnor Guest is a member of IoD Berkshire
Read more advice from our panel of experts