Keep Clients Happy – Expert Tips and Advice from Paul Cowan

Reading Time: 18 Minutes

Paul Cowan is a relationship specialist and the author of Connecting with Clients — For Stronger, More Rewarding and Longer-Lasting Client Relationships. In this interview, we discuss relationships between clients and their agencies.

After the Interview:

About Paul Cowan

Early in his career, Paul led international advertising agencies. Later, he transitioned to working as a psychotherapist. He cofounded the Client Relationship Consultancy and the Customer Relationship Consultancy, where he consults for individuals, couples, teams and organizations.

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This transcript was auto-generated from the original video recording using Otter Voice Meeting Notes. While the transcript has not been human edited, we hope it will still help you to quickly find or reference useful information from the interview


Hey, deliberate leaders. I’m Jen Drean, Executive Business coach here at Deliberate Directions. And your hostess today for our Deliberate Leaders Podcast, where we’re dedicated to helping leaders build strong and thriving businesses. And each episode features an inspiring interview to help you on your leadership journey. Today, I have with me, Paul Cowan, who is the relationship specialist. And I just want to say thanks, Paul, for coming. And welcome to our podcast today.


Thank you very much indeed. It’s great to be with you.


Paul, you had a fascinating career in advertising, psychotherapy, client customer relationships, and consultancy. And now author, right? That’s right, it seems to be a pretty full career. So well, I’m intrigued, because that’s quite a quite a list of different things. And what kind of led you through that evolution of career change? And can you tell me a little bit about what you do as a relationship specialist?


Okay, well, starting with the career, then I had no idea what I wanted to do. And I, when I left school, and I failed most of my high school qualifications, we have a sort of standard exam level comm in the UK. And I was really not very good. And one of my teachers said, I was going to end up, you know, collecting waste and garbage for a living. And, you know, he could have been almost right. And I found my way into advertising, my dad had worked in advertising. And, you know, when he told me that, maybe I should try it, I was pretty convinced that he was wrong. And, and it took a good couple of months, and a friend of mine say, you know, Paul, you should really try advertising. And I got in and I became a messenger, and I worked my way up through the ranks and advertising. And eventually, you know, having worked for big agencies, and, you know, on global  accounts, and I eventually set my own advertising agency up in London. And that was, back in the day, I thought, a really, it was a great thing to do, I really loved every moment of it. And it was fantastically challenging. And I love working in advertising, the speed, the excitement, the new ideas, the innovation, it was just, it was fantastic. It was the best thing I could ever think about doing. And it didn’t depend on formal qualifications. About seven years after I launched my agency, it seemed to be time to merge it to get larger with another agency. And, you know, what was fascinating was that this agency with whom we merged, use the same words that we used to had the same kind of conceptual apparently thinking they talked about, and I want to use all those cliches, you know, out of the box thinking, innovation, high creativity, you know, exciting, creative work, etc. But, you know, the first day of that merge business, I knew it was wrong, because what we meant by those words, were fundamentally different things. And that was fascinating, you know, how on earth could I have compromised this, this my agency, you know, on a mistaken idea that people meant the same things when they use those kind of words, that really opened my mind to the thought. There’s more to this than just about ads, there’s something going on about the psychology of these two teams that had merged together. And then I got really fascinated by what was happening around me, you know, whole groups of high functioning individuals, you know, people that hold down jobs and, and relationships with somehow collude unconsciously with each other on a Monday morning to make the worst of each other, you know, like clients and agencies can sometimes do. That is fascinating. And then I was also struck by the way that for some accounts, you know, I would, and my teams would go through absolute hell on fire. And yet for other clients, we couldn’t be bothered to get off our collective bustles. You know, at that point, I knew I had to go and find out what was going on. And I left the business, I left my agency and that led to studying to become a change agent. I studied organizational change. I’ve got a Master’s screen in the psychology of team change. Individual changing company change. And I’ve got a master’s degree in dish towel, psychotherapy and became a couples therapist, intern. And I thought I’d never walk into an advertising agency or, or, you know, deal with that kind of thing of client relationships. But then friends of mine running advertising agencies said to me, you know, Paul, you do that tree, Huggy stuff, can you come and help us. And then I realized, actually, I had, somehow all these strands of knowledge that together actually kind of fit it into a new career. And that led to the formation of the client relationship consultancy in 2004. And now we work with something like 1200 different agency offices in 92 countries. And, and in turn, all of that led to a lot of research. And that led to the book. So you know, that that’s been the journey and the motivation for the journey. Yeah.


So as a relationship specialist, what is that that’s a term that at least I don’t think a lot of people use here in the US? What, what do you do on a day to day?


Well, I think a lot, and I listen a lot, you know, for me, so I work within the client relationship consultancy. And to some degree, independently, I see private clients, but on a corporate level, helping marketing agencies in particular, with their relationships with their clients. And, you know, it can be so challenging for any kind of professional services company, to manage their relationships effectively. You know, their increasing pressures is not just about the pandemic, but there are just so many pressures on the agencies all the time, that somebody that steps outside, or rather comes in from outside, and a bit like a couple’s counselor does, can bring new insight, new ways of thinking, and new ideas, to help guide steer, offer possibilities, you know, to improve relationships make them more rewarding and longer lasting. And so that’s what I spend my time doing, focusing on relationships, you know, and somebody said, Well, what are your qualifications? And I thought, well, actually, my qualifications are, I’ve probably made more mistakes than most people. So you know, and we all learn through mistakes. So I guess my biggest qualification is I’ve had more learning opportunities, the most people around.


I noticed that from your bio, that I read on your web page that, that you had a lot of got fired, got fired. And I assume those are some of the some of the mistakes you’re referencing, but I agree, I tend to lean towards the failures, our best way of learning and learning forward and not for all my daughter’s school says failing forward, right? So taking those opportunities and running with them.


Exactly. We look at little kids how they first learn to pick up a cup, sucky cup, we call it in the UK, you know, and the hand goes out, their little hands go out and they miss it. It’s very frustrating, and they miss and then they’re not cricket. And then after a while, they get to learn how to organize their motor skills. So they pick up the cup, and they can bring it to their lips and suck. And that becomes very productive. But they have to learn how not to do it as part of the process for learning how to do it. And the same with all things.


absolutely. Well, let’s shift gears just a little bit. I want to talk a little bit about your book. And the title is connecting with clients for stronger, more rewarding and longer lasting client relationships. Looks like it was just published just this March. Correct.


Correct. Absolutely. Yes. It’s, it’s relatively fresh off the press. Awesome. Well, congratulations. The first book, I think, right, I thought it’s the first book. Yeah, definitely. Last one or more to come, maybe? I don’t know. I was talking to the publisher the other day about another book. So what we’ll see, we’ll see. Again, I learned how not to write a book by writing three different rewrites. So I gotcha.


Let three so bad. I’ve heard of many more. Well, can you give us a little bit of a teaser about what the book is about and maybe why you wrote it and what kind of an impact do you think this book can make?


The book, you know, quite boldly could say, well, it’s about relationships. But the premise of the book is really simple. And that is in relationships in any kind of business relationship, or indeed, in couple relationships, there are always, always two levels of problem. And there are problem I and problem I am for those who might be listening to this, I’m just holding my hand up, uh, you know, pointing almost to the sky, there’s problem I, and that’s the task at hand. And in a professional services company that’s satisfying the client with the delivery, the logistics, your marketing services, that’s about the strategy, the campaign, the sign off the production, all of that stuff. But in any relationship underneath that, underneath that is problem B. And problem B, is about how we’re getting on together. Do you have my back? Do I have your back? Do we trust each other? Are we communicating effectively together? Do you feel when things go wrong? That I’m doing my very best, and vice versa? Now, from a client’s perspective, the way that the agency or any service supplier fulfills problem is at the top is always mediated by problem B. How do we feel about that particular organizational person? And this book is paying attention to problem B. Because in this highly competitive world, we’ve come to believe the best way of satisfying a client is probably my, well, I’ve got news for people, most professional services companies, and indeed, most service companies of all sorts, operate within a reasonable band tolerance when it comes to problem. I mean, it doesn’t matter where you grow across the world. By and large, between, you know, a certain level up or down. The delivery is good. That’s not the competitive advantage, the competitive advantages, how are we getting on together? How was the client? How positively do they feel? Now, if clients feel positively towards us, by large, when things go wrong, and they always will go wrong, then they’re going to be more forgiving, they’re going to be more supportive, more loyal. When things go right, they’re going to be more celebrated, wary, and lean in to us more. If they feel negatively about us, when things go wrong, we’re in real trouble, they will be unforgiving. And when things go, right, they’ll just be okay. So this book is about problem B, it’s about managing the psychology of the relationship. Now, psychology sounds like a big work. But this particular book is written like a train ride, or an airplane ride book. And I’ve put it into little chunks, so between two and five minutes on average, so you can just read a bit, and then dip in and then dive into some other part of the book. So it sounds like heavy, but it’s not. Um, the notion is, you know, passing over tips and advice that I would want. That’s why I wrote it really, for my younger self, what would I have really benefited from back then, when I had a very low attention span, but wanted to suck in information? What top tips? What ideas? Would there be? For me back then? Well, this this book of being around them, would have been the answer. It was saved a lot of angst and challenging hard work. So I’ve written it for the younger me, or for anybody that wants to have, you know, better client relationships. And actually, it applies in personal relationships, too. Yeah, that’s what it’s about.


I was noticing that when I was reading the there’s a lot of correlation just with the client relationship issues, and also just, you know, team and employee relationship issues or personal relationship issues. And that kind of brings up the interesting concept. You know, there’s kind of buzzwords right now about employee engagement and keeping your employees happy and creating a great team. And I saw a lot of correlation between those and what your books about, can you talk a little bit about how those overlap and how that could lead the concepts in this book could also lead into maybe building a great stripe, striving, strong business with a great team.


All of the things that you mentioned, depend on interpersonal relationships, our relationship with our boss or our direct report, our employees, our colleagues, and indeed our personal friends, our partners, just as much as they do with clients, we’re all human beings, we’re all struggling with the same issues. And you know what, yes, we’ve all got our functional expertise. But actually, it’s the efficacy of our work collectively, that is critical. And so this book will help anybody in any team to understand what’s going on for their colleagues better, at the very least, and what might be going on for their clients, or maybe going on for other teams, and provide some ideas about improving those relationships. So yes, it does give any reader I think, some really good advice, in a very easy to in. And by the way, if anybody reads the book, and they disagree with something, that’s fine, too, you know, find something better. You know, these are star points, these are these are things to have fun with, and engage with them, and practice with. And if you can do better, if you’ve got a better way of doing it. I’d love to hear about that. So I can tell people about it. But the Yeah, for sure, all of those things you mentioned. Yeah, I’m passionate about the notion of how we, as human beings can operate and communicate really effectively together.


I think that the, you know, one of my big takeaways from our conversation so far has just been you know, that relationship no matter which one it is, and that there’s like, it’s, it’s from an emotional standpoint, that’s what we’re working we’re working for, right? And I always coach people and coach my team around anything we want in life is because we think that that thing’s going to give us a an emotion, right? And so like, how can we create that emotional response that we want to then get what we want, and whether that’s a better relationship with a client or with a team member? or what have you, trying to figure out what the underlying emotion is that we’re driving for, I think is really important.


For sure, and by large, you know, these days, we, we tend to dismiss emotions. And we tend to look for functional delivery, you know, the whole notion of high-performing teams, and, you know, highly effective work, output, all that kind of stuff really comes from the sort of post industrial time that’s really just going on. So we’ve become more and more competitive in that in that demand domain. But actually, the real advantage, the real competitive advantage is somewhere else, you know, if we can make more of each other, that’s, that’s way better than anything else. If we communicate 10%, better. Wow, that’s pretty good. If we can eliminate 15% of mistakes and errors, because we are communicating and we are listening really effectively. Wow, how wonderful would that be? So yeah, that’s that that’s what the book is about. Another thing, I’ve read a book that’s in the same area, that sets out with the same idea on the same premise and the same objective.


Yeah, I don’t, I’m a pretty voracious reader. I don’t think I have either. And so it’s having a background in psychology myself, prior to my career, was kind of looking at those same types of things. To me, it’s fascinating to see just human behavior, and just how it applies to all aspects of life, whether that’s business relationships, or what have you. But to me, that’s kind of the key, right is like, what’s the human behavior? What’s driving that human behavior? How can we get the human behavior we want, you know, get more of what we want, and less of what we don’t? And I think your book hits on that fantastically.


Thank you. Yeah. I mean, you know, and the problem a problem be, I was talking to a young man earlier on talking to you on a one to one client basis. And, you know, clearly, he has some relationship problems in his personal relationship is one to one relationship. And I was explaining problem I am problem v. And how paying attention to problem B, would more than likely resolve the issues in problem a, and he got it. He got it.


I talked to my team a lot about this. And I think that it’s kind of overlaps Well, with your book, but, you know, when we get feedback from a client, or a patient, I’m also an optometrist by trade. And when we, when we get a concern or complaint from a patient, we might my staff will kind of immediately go towards that that, you know, problem a that you mentioned, and you know, what’s the underlying issue, we didn’t do anything wrong, we didn’t do anything wrong. And I’m like, doesn’t matter. We could have nailed all this, that if their perception and their emotional attachment to it was x. I mean, we could have been the best that we can possibly been in all those other areas, but their perception was There. So we have to figure out how to tackle that, that perceptual part of it and make sure that we do better there next time. Yeah, for sure, for sure. That brings up a really interesting question for me, do you think that there’s a, the agency client relationship is more transactional now than it used to be?


I think many relationships are more transactional, I think, particularly in the world of marketing services and clients. There’s a tendency for on the relation on the spectrum between relational and transactional, there is a leaning from towards the more transactional. And I think we could look at one of the major underlying causes to be the rise of procurement in marketing services. So in the past, if I go back to on the clock back, and this applies to many, by the way, many professional services crept in the clock back 10 or 15 years, and individuals were emotionally committed to their clients. And therefore, they were determined to do their very best. And their very best would often mean that they excelled and went beyond the client’s expectations. When you have to rise a procurement, what they look for is a minimum standard. And once that’s achieved, then the contract is satisfied. So one is about exceeding expectations. And the other one is about getting up to a level of minimum level. One becomes therefore more transactional. By its very nature, we’re thinking about the actual delivery, rather than the excitement of exceeding our expectations. So I think that’s what one particular aspect that’s going on. And there are underlying issues for that in terms of agency theory, which probably is not worth going into just right now. Well, I think another factor that’s going on, and this is during the pandemic is the of course, the way in which we are communicating just right now, by the way, and it’s very difficult to have a relationship with a little picture on the screen, you know, we have relationships with people, and in real life, and that’s where the way we’re, we’re wired. So inevitably, when we start to rely more and more on email, on teams on zoom, or whatever, web based delivery platform, the interpersonal relationship is more challenged, communication becomes way more difficult. I’m using 15%, more volume, unconsciously we all do, by the way on these workplace plays based platforms. Simply because we’re trying at some unconscious level, some out of awareness level, to bridge the barrier that is between us to somehow make ourselves more real to the listener. Well, that’s quite exhausting. And then if we’re looking at these small screens all day, that’s exhausting. Because we’re trying to make up for the absence of body language, we just can’t see what’s going on. Now in terms of communication, that’s about 55%, roughly give or take of all communication content is in the body language, we miss that we miss the micro movements in in facial expressions, we miss, the pace of the breath, or clues that go on around an interaction that tell us when we can interrupt, how important is it. Now there’s a third 38%, which is communications around the voice delivery, the emphasis, the tone, the pace, the up and down movement of the intonation. And of course, with buffering, and we get this way more over web based platforms than we do on telephone, we lose all of that, it becomes much more difficult to know, really, how important is something and we’re straining to kind of make up for that. And then of course, we’ve got the rest of the communication, the seven, whatever it is percent, which are the words themselves? Well, words that I started out saying are pretty slippery things. You know, they can mean one thing to one group people are loving to another group people. So there’s a whole raft of problems associated with this frequent use of web based platforms rather than face to face meetings. And then with email is pretty poor at communicating others For purely factual stuff, and so why are we got a real problem, little pictures on us on a screen that not communicating terribly well and supported by email, this is this inevitably is going to move us towards a more transactional kind of relationship,


I can definitely relate to that on a level, I almost take it a little further, I guess and say, you know, like, there’s, there’s the different types of verbal and nonverbal communication and, and ease that you mentioned. And, you know, I’m very empathetic. And so I kind of feel the energy coming off of people a little bit. So. So if there’s tension there, or if there’s, you know, even if there’s not a body language to go along with it, like, you can feel that in a in a one on one situation that you in person situation that you just can’t feel in this situation. And that’s I think something that’s I’ve struggled the most with during this time is trying to continue to make those good close connections and relationships with clients in this format without having that that feedback and, and then mirroring it to right. So if I’ve got a client who’s feeling one way, it’s really hard for me to then either mirror them or show them and have the mirror back to me What, what we need to work on, right? And so help give them that good positive energy that maybe that I’m feeling towards what they’re accomplishing. So they’ve got it too. And that’s something I feel like been lacking as well.


Well, of course, you know, what you’re talking about is the, the mirror neurons that bounced backwards and forwards that tell us what’s going on for the other person, right. And that is just really tough, challenging. It’s only when we have extreme displays of emotion that we might be able to infer or pick up some kind of emotional content. So you know, it’s really, really difficult. Yeah.


So this question kind of slides a little bit from that, but not too far away, I don’t think but what do you think makes a really good client facing executive? And what do you think the training for these client facing executives is adequate?


Well, I noticed I just crossed my arms, you can’t see that. But I can see the body language close off a little.


That’s interesting. I wonder what that’s about. So what makes a good adequately skilled, for me, it’s really about high levels of emotional intelligence. You know, Dan Goleman, popularized the notion of emotional intelligence. You know, it wasn’t just his work. By the way, I think there was some really good research. Originally, when they, when he and his colleagues first put this out, they described emotional intelligence as four quadrants, and the first one was self awareness. You know, if I was self aware, if I’m aware of myself, then I’m going to be way better, way more likely to be able to self manage. And there is a good correlation between the two. And if I can self manage, and I’ve got good self awareness, then I’m much more likely to have an awareness of what’s going on for you, or for other people, in my team, in my organization, and if that’s the case, and I have good awareness of the organizational context, as well, I’m much more likely to be able to manage the relationships more effectively. so brilliant, is just four quadrants for emotional intelligence, their original work, really to demonstrate the efficacy of this as a model for managers, and I think that any good client facing exec, they can really develop their self awareness. That is the cornerstone of effective, good client relationship. Everything else can build from that. You mentioned training, and I think there is has always been a paucity of training and I think it’s pretty much non existent these days. So, you know, again, that’s, I guess, is one of the reasons why I wrote the book. There’s nothing out there to learn from the to find particular training courses is a real Trump challenge, and most companies don’t have the budget. Yeah. Which is really sad. I think it’s really, really sad. You know, but maybe it’s an opportunity for somebody like me in the future, who knows?


Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s something that we work on a lot with new clients, is you know, working on mindset and the emotional intelligence and self awareness thing. goes with that, right. And a lot of the times we, we can’t change our mindset to accomplish the goals that we want without having that self awareness. And so we tend to work on that a lot in the beginning so I can completely understand and agree, I don’t think there’s good tools and resources out there for it right, you know, you can coach people on it. But sometimes there’s not enough tools out there to subs or to withdraw them, and kind of augment that right. And so having a little bit extra help, there is something like your book is a fantastic resource, though. Well, Paul, thank you so much for visiting with us today. How can our listeners get connected with you? And where can they get a copy of your book?


Well, they can get connected on That’s PA, you will co w. a, Paul And by all means, leave your name and address. And by the way, on the website. There’s major interviews and what sort of stuff and stuff about the book and various blogs as well. And as time progresses, there’ll be more and more blogs and things ColourPop that haven’t covered in the book, I want to add them there. So it becomes a learning community of people raise questions, and I can always answer them. So that that is just starting now. So everybody, please go there. How can they get the book? Well, they can go to any of the usual suspects. So you know, Amazon, Barnes and Noble. I think if you live in the west coast in San Francisco, you can go to Kepler’s lovely store in Palo Alto, and very various shops and retailers around the USA and Canada. So please check online, it is there.


And we’ll have some links of that in our show notes as well. Good. Well, thank you so much. And do you have any questions for me? Yeah, we all speak back one day, of course. I look forward to the next book, too. I actually, I just got your copy. So I haven’t got a chance to read through as far as I’d like. But I am speaking with you today. I am excited that it’s a snippet book. Because one of those ones, you can jump around to you because I don’t believe in reading books without taking action. And so I like books that kind of give short spurts and then take an action and then short spurts and take an action. So I’m excited to dive into that.


Yeah, well, that’s great. I had one global CEO speak to me last week. He said, Paul, don’t expect to sell a million copies of this book. He said, that is not a good business book. A good business book is one, which has lots and lots of underlines, lots of highlights, lots of turn corners on pages and lots of stick tabs. And he said, nice guy, he said, I think you’re going to make it with this book. So that’s my objective. Anyway, I just wish everybody enjoy. I hope you enjoy it. I love the feedback as well please. You Back Page 73 on the book.


Perfect. Thank you so much. Appreciate it. Thank you.

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