Lifestyle expert Colin Cowie joins Zibby to discuss his 11th book, The Gold Standard. Zibby shares which piece of advice from the book she recently shared to inspire her team at Zibby Books and asks Colin about how Covid-19 impacted his messaging. The two also talk about how to create a desirable product in a saturated market, the ways in which publishing has changed between the release of his first book in 1996 and today, and the guiding principles Colin offers for leaders to direct and unite their teams.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Colin. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your new book, The Gold Standard, which was so amazing and helpful for so many reasons. Thank you for coming on to discuss.

Colin Cowie: I’m very, very happy to be with you today, Zibby. That’s why I called it The Gold Standard. It’s about giving your customers what they didn’t know they wanted.

Zibby: Yes, amazing. My listeners didn’t know they wanted your podcast, and now they got it. There you go. I have to tell you, I bought your book, Effortless Elegance with Colin Cowie, when it first came out. It sat on my coffee table for years and years. I am just so excited to talk to you in general and then was so thrilled when I realized your latest book is about you and your life story in addition to your advice. I was so pleased to get to know the whole backstory of how you became you, which was amazing.

Colin: It’s a good story. It’s interesting, isn’t it, and colorful?

Zibby: It is interesting and colorful. Why don’t you tell listeners a little bit about your background that you shared and how it came to be that you were the person who was setting the gold standard for not only events, but hospitality and experiential customer service in general?

Colin: I grew up in Central Africa, Zambia, in a very small town. We had one hotel and one restaurant you’d never put your foot into and a country club we belonged to. I can’t think of a time which we weren’t entertaining in our homes. We always had people for lunches, dinners, and house guests. As a result, for me, entertaining was a natural thing to do. It’s just what you did. You made people feel comfortable. You made people feel welcome. Fast-forward, 1985 was the height of apartheid in South Africa. It was a very unfair political system. I didn’t believe in it. I didn’t want to participate in it. I didn’t realize or think that there could be a future for the country. I didn’t want to spend my hardest-working years not knowing what the future would hold. Our finances were frozen and monitored and tracked because we lived in a police state. Armed with four hundred dollars, one well-cut suit, an omnipresent suntan, and big dreams, I landed in Los Angeles on the sixteenth of September, 1985. I never looked back. It was amazing. I started working as a caterer. Then I owned my own catering company. Then I started planning parties. I was doing all this European sense of cuisine. I was doing branzino grilled. I was doing branzino cooked in sea salt. I had all these fabulous European ideas. It was a time when California cuisine was at its highest. It was just a lot of layers of everything, one on top of the other. I had this European sensibility.

It just caught on very quickly. I became the young caterer to the stars. The next minute, I was doing Bruce Willis and Demi Moore and Sylvester Stallone and Barbra Streisand. They were my clients, Tom Cruise, the works. I did all their parties for them. Along the way came this little magazine, InStyle magazine, because they had no credibility. I had all the relationships with the celebrities. That led to my first TV show. Then I started doing private labeling and designing of product for Lenox and all these other companies. Thirteen years later, I moved to New York. I started working in the Middle East and doing these big, mega, mega, fabulous, amazing events. I’ve just had the most extraordinary journey. Here we are eleven books later. The Gold Standard: Giving Your Customers What They Didn’t Know They Wanted, this is my eleventh book. It’s my first book which is really a B2B. It’s a business book. It really teaches us, how do we stand out in the crowd today in the very crowded space? I’m sure you’ll agree with me, we don’t need another product. We don’t need another service. We don’t need another app. We don’t need another piece of technology. We’re over-assaulted in all those departments. The thing is, how do we stand out in the crowd? That’s why I use customer service. I say it’s the new currency today. It’s how we make you feel. That’s what’s important. I can go on and on and on.

Zibby: I totally agree. I love your messaging. I loved how your first real experience hosting an event was in a tent where you made a bar for the soldiers who were working with you when you were part of the army. Who would’ve thought that’s how you got your start, with the wallpaper on the walls of tents and everything? Thank you for sharing your backstory with us. That was really phenomenal.

Colin: That’s a funny part of the story. Just to fill your readers in and listeners in, I was drafted to the military for two years. It was mandatory, so I figured, how do I stand out in the crowd? I became head of the medics. I became friendly with the major in command of the whole camp. We were in Southern Angola, Southwest Africa on the border of Southern Angola. I said, “You know, we need to do something for the troops’ morale. Maybe I can set up an officers’ bar. Maybe someone can take me in a helicopter to .” I came back with a tent and the jute and the wallpaper and everything. I brought with me, a couple of those big beverage servers where you could make the daily cocktail of the day. You could make sixty at a time. Those were the first two I bought. I realized then — I didn’t realize then, but I realized twenty-odd years later when I was looking on Home Shopping Network, this would be a great thing to sell. I went on to sell over 150,000 units of those on Home Shopping Network. It was insane. It’s interesting how a small, little idea in a very, very challenged moment in life ended up being such a big idea later on in life.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, I just love it and all the creativity. The book itself and all the advice that you have throughout the chapters after your life story resonated so much with me because, yes, I do this podcast, but I also just recently launched a publishing business. We’re going to be publishing twelve books a year. I am also thinking very seriously about the customer experience and how to make people feel and all the things that you were talking about. Literally, after I finished your book, I emailed my entire team. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, I was just so inspired by Colin Cowie’s new book. Here are the eighteen things I think we should think about. Maybe we can do things differently this way. Let’s start from scratch,” and blah, blah, blah. It had a huge effect on me personally. I’m sure it will on all the readers.

Colin: That’s interesting because a lot of people said to me, tell me about this book. How long did it take to write? I said it might have taken a year and a half to put the content together, but it’s a lifetime of my work. It’s all the lessons that I learned along the way, the failures that I had and why the failure was a necessity and what I learned from them. I never went to university to study. I come from the university of whatever it takes. I graduated in knocks and falls realizing that every time I got up, I got up smarter than I fell the last time. It really is a lifetime of work between two covers. I think there’s something in here for everyone. It doesn’t matter whether you’re running a manicure store with three people on the corner or you’re running a Fortune 500 store. All these principles apply to everyone and to everything. It’s very timely today. I do a very big focus in the very beginning. I believe that in any business where we want to serve people or we want to sell something, we need to set the table correctly, which means getting everybody aligned. I started writing the book pre-COVID. The interesting thing was this message has never been more important. During COVID, a lot of products changed. A lot of our messaging changed. Our staffing changed. Our work situation changed. Some people were working hybrid. Some people were working remotely. This is a better idea now than ever to make sure that everything that we need in our company culture to go and deliver this type of customer service — I call it culture because culture, really, it’s the fuel. A lot of people say a hundred percent is the goal. It’s actually 120. That other twenty percent is passion. That’s what’s going to get you ahead of the game. That culture comes from making sure that we have a vision for what we want to do, that we have a mission that’s going to tell us exactly how we’re going to get there.

Most important, what are the guiding principles? If you were to take ten of your employees and put them in ten different rooms and ask them a question, if they’d gone through this exercise, eighty percent of the answers would be the same. If not, you’d get radically different answers. I think alignment is very important. Then the other thing that I said, what makes us stand out is how I make you feel. The whole goal in this overcrowded arena is, if we’re going to have a transaction, how do I create the emotional connection with you? That’s what’s important. Once I have that emotional connection with you, you’re going to be loyal to me. You’ll love receiving information from me. You’re not prize-sensitive. You spend more freely. Most importantly, you’re going to tell all your friends about me. That emotionally connected person is really, really important. I call it the customer seduction because we use the senses, what you smell, touch, taste, see, and hear, to craft that guest experience. I take it one step further by saying, it’s all about delivering. There are two types of service. There’s reactive service, which is what ninety-five percent of the world’s service providers offer. When something goes wrong, they put their hand up. They can fix it. They can buy some loyalty with it if it’s done correctly. Only five percent of the world are able to deliver proactive customer service. That’s when we can really, really get interesting. We can use the information that’s readily available to us. You can google and find any information about anyone. It’s amazing what people put on their social media pages. You just get to reserve that and use that yourself to be able to make a message that you know is going to resonate with other people. When that happens, that’s when the magic happens. Proactive service allows us to anticipate the unanticipated needs of the guest. When you do that, you create that emotional connection. There’s no question about it. There’s tons of fun stuff in here. I could go on and on and on. I’m rather passionate about the subject about now.

Zibby: It’s absolutely true. I think what you said is so true. Even when you talked about the own positioning of your business where there were, at the beginning, only a couple big, essentially, event-planning service firms who were doing these types of events, and then next thing you knew, anybody with a website was saying they were an event planner, and so how do you distinguish yourself? How do you stand by what you believe in? How do you produce something exceptional that’s straight from the heart? I think that with every market becoming completely saturated and crowded, you’re right, there has to be something significantly different. What do we have left but to touch people where they feel, right?

Colin: Exactly. Otherwise with a very thirsty consumer today, the new, young consumers today, they’re programmed to look at life as though it’s a revolving door that’s just going to service them one great product after the next. It’s true because there is one great product coming after the next. If we aren’t able to create that emotional connection, they’re just going to continue shopping. We’re going to sit there trying to sell. It’s not going to work. We have to connect those dots. We have to make those connections. The emotional connection is important not only to the person on the outside, but you want your team, you want your staff to be emotionally connected. That way they buy into everything it is that you’re doing.

Zibby: If you were going to try to sell a book, how would you do it? How are you doing this book differently? You have a new product on the market. How are you approaching it in a way that makes people resonate? It’s your book. How are you applying your skills to selling this book?

Colin: It’s so much more difficult today to sell a book. First of all, I’ve eleven books over the period of the last twenty-five years. When you look at it, you’d go on The Oprah Winfrey Show years ago. She’d hold up your book. Everyone would run to Barnes & Noble and to Borders and to every other bookstore, pre-Amazon, and go buy your hardcopy book. You’d be on The New York Times best-seller list. It’s not like that today. First of all, so many people are competing with online publications versus things that are in print. I don’t think print will ever go away because there’s something about holding that tangible book in your hands. For me, it’s not about national television anymore. I did quite a bit of television, Good Morning America, ABC, etc., on this book. The needle didn’t move like it’s been moving it on podcasts. The podcast, it’s been the most beneficial way for me to move numbers of books, for sure. Just doing exactly what I’m doing with you now, and I’m finding alternative ways, is kind of the way that I’ve been selling the book. The other thing is, I’ve been doing a lot of speaking engagements. Because this is about customer service, a lot of people in the hospitality space want to hear what we have to say.

There was also a time when — I remember writing books in the beginning where the publisher went out and did their best to help sell books for you. There were marketing budgets. Now everything pretty much lands up in the author’s hands. What is it that you can do? I do a lot of work on the speaking circuit. The speaking circuit has been really, really good for me because instead of selling two books at a time, someone’s buying a hundred books, two hundred books, three hundred books at a time. That’s what’s moving the needle for me. Then on the individual basis, as I said, the podcasts have been the most important. Then going out to my friends who are influencers. I sent them all a book. I sent them ten or fifteen blurbs and said, “Would you pick one of these and show me some love and support?” That’s exactly what it’s like. It’s reaching out to your network now instead of someone else’s network and getting your network to promote you however they possibly can, whether it’s Instagram posts, Facebook posts, stories. We do what we have to do today in a very, very different landscape of publishing, but it’s working. We’re working twice as hard, and we’re getting the same results.

Zibby: You think there’s anything fundamentally we can change about books in general or book marketing or the experience of reading a book? Your book made me think about how I could make books different. Maybe there’s something that people haven’t thought of yet in terms of the book experience the way you’ve rethought events.

Colin: Also, the way that I rethought the book. I wrote a business book, and I dedicate it to a housekeeper.

Zibby: She sounds amazing, by the way. I can’t believe she walked you down the aisle. That’s amazing.

Colin: Yes. This been for twenty-five years. I have a home in Miami now. The most devastating thing in my life was her now parting ways. Also, having worked for me for twenty-five years and being seventy-five, it was time for her to start enjoying her golden years without having to work anymore. That clearly, clearly, for me, was such an evident and ominous gold standard right in front of me. It’s been a fun project. I always like to look at finding things before they happen. I think that’s what trend is all about, and being ahead of the curve and bringing out new ways to do new things. Otherwise, we get left behind. There’s a lot of smart people out there doing a lot of things. There’s a lot of product out there that we have to compete with on a regular and a daily basis.

Zibby: It’s so true. Do you like to read yourself?

Colin: Be myself?

Zibby: Do you like to read? Do you like to read for fun?

Colin: Oh, I thought you said I like to be myself. I was going to say, yes, a hundred percent authentically.

Zibby: Of course, you like to be yourself. Do you like to read? Is reading one of your go-to things to relax? If so, what type of books do you like to read?

Colin: I always have five or six books next to my bed. I always like to have one or two — there’s always a self-help book. There’s always a book on conservation. I like to have interesting material around me. Whenever I travel, I love to grab a book with me so that I can sit on an airplane and actually read a book. I look around, and I realize I’m the only person doing it. I notice that everybody is either reading online or they’re glued to their phones. It’s amazing, your phone now tells you exactly how much time you spend a week on it. I find people that can’t walk through the airport looking ahead because they’re busy looking at their phone. They’re obsessed with their phones and information. The sad thing is, everything has been served up to us in bite-size pieces, so the idea of getting into a novel that you just can’t wait to get home on your own to read another four, five chapters of, I think it’s one of those lost pleasures in life. There was nothing better than, on a winter’s day, to make a big pot of coffee or a pot of tea and light a fragrant candle and sit in the front of the fire, put a blanket up, and get stuck into your book. That was a favorite afternoon of mine.

Now you’ve got fifteen other things going on. You’re multiple-tasking between four or five different instruments. So sad, my favorite, favorite, favorite all-time author died earlier this week, a gent by the name of Wilbur Smith. He was the most iconic, epic African adventure writer. I read every single one of his books. I read them over the period of the last thirty-five years. Then I started to read them all again. I think there’s something really amazing about reading and being able to be transported into another world versus sitting and watching all this information that is pushed towards us, as in our phones, as in Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, whatever it might be. We are overloaded and barraged and targeted just to send content towards us left, right, and center. I like the idea of what you alluded to earlier of us going out there and us looking for the content and being able to use content in a very meaningful way to transport us to a magical place where we can fantasize in our minds about what life could be or put ourselves into a particular situation and make us think differently about a moment.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. What advice would you have for people trying to write books like you just did and have done many times? Then also, how can we make the customer experience for our families even better? What can we do at home to make life better using all of the tools in your toolbox?

Colin: It’s so interesting. I’ll answer your second question first. I do a lot of public speaking. I speak to a lot of corporations. I speak to a lot of companies. I always say, all these things that we’re teaching you, just realize that not only do they make you a better person, but they make you a better parent. They make you a better sibling. They make you a better friend. Everything that you can learn that you use in the corporate space and anything that helps you be a better version of you helps you in every area of your life. Without a question, we practice what we preach because that is what we learn and what we read. For anyone who wants to be an author out there, I think the easiest way to do it is, go online and download how to write a book and how to put a book proposal together. It is very, very specific. Things have changed from what we used to write a book thirty-five years ago compared to writing a book today. You need to not only come up with a really compelling idea as to why you can sell your book, but more importantly, you need to prove to the publisher, what can you do to sell the book? The marketing plan of selling your book is equally important to the content of the book. The publishers don’t have the money today to make them stand out in the crowd like they used to.

I think a lot of this is dependent on the author to come up with, who is your network? How are you going to sell this book? How are you going to get us onto a best-seller list? I think it’s pretty — it’s not easy. There’s nothing easy about doing this at all. You need to dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s in terms of a marketing plan and laying out your table of contents and writing a sample chapter and writing the forward of the book so that you can give someone a really good idea, and a company, as to why they would actually buy this book. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve worked with an extraordinary literary agent, Margret McBride from The McBride Literary Agency out in San Diego. She has done all eleven books for me. Every time I’ve written books, “It’s a different world right now. It’s a different world right now.” , the publishers say, we want to do your next three books. Let’s tie you up. We’ll give you an advance that was so huge and amazing. The advances have come down tremendously compared to what they used to just because those publishing dollars are now being shared online and with digital content. It’s a very different landscape. I just think you have to be very specific. Have a really, really good idea. More than your good idea, you really need to know, what can I do to prove to the person who’s going to publish my book that I make this book move, fly, and sell?

Zibby: Love it. Wow. Colin, thank you for this. Thank you for all of your amazing, inspiring advice and your story. I’ve just lapped it up and will be using it often. Thank you for that. Thank you for coming on my show.

Colin: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful day. Bye.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.



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