Book Review: The New Conceptual Selling (Robert Miller & Stephen Heiman)

Over the last 10 months or so, not surprisingly, I have started to enjoy reading books about sales.  I find that, even if I don’t put every last detail into practice, while I’m reading them, I get a buzz of enthusiasm for the task of selling in the first place.

This particular book is put out by the Miller Heiman firm, who specialise in training salespeople to sell to large companies. The reason for this specialty is that it seems to be the case that salespeople who sell well on small things (like, say, vacuum cleaners) don’t always make the best salespeople for something much larger (like, say, arts sponsorship).

One of the issues that this book is trying to address is the dilemma of salespeople who consistently try “tricks” and “techniques” to convince the prospective customer to buy whatever they are selling.

Not surprisingly, while this kind of thing might work well if you’re down at Harvey Norman looking for a vacuum cleaner, you’re much less likely to get away with this kind of thing with the Marketing Manager of one of Australia’s leading banks.  (Actually, I hate all salespeople that try hard-sell tactics – and charity salespeople, the worst of all, because they’re the on-the-street face of organisations that are supposed to be making the world a better place.)

This particular book (which, available from Amazon, is a heck of a lot cheaper than the Heiman Miller training course of the same name) deals specifically with what you say when you’re actually in the face-to-face sales meeting and is half of the Heiman Miller sales process.  (The other half is in The New Strategic Selling, which I shall review in due course.)  Or, more specifically, how to plan out your sales calls so that you actually have something sensible to say to move the sale along.

I’ll definitely be utilising some of the insights in this book when planning sales visits in the future, but this book breaks things down into so much detail, that I’m not sure that any salesperson would have the time to analyse their potential sales calls in this way.  I’m pretty confident that if they did, they would have very good conversations, and know exactly where the conversation is going when they’re talking to their customer – but it would be a lot of work.

But then again, if you practised these techniques (such as thinking specifically about what information you need to uncover, what information you need to offer, etc), they would probably start to become second nature to you.  So maybe it only appears clunky at a first reading.

My favourite book of this type is Neil Rackham’s SPIN Selling, which offers a far simpler methodology, which has also been backed up by extensive statistical testing of thousands of salespeople (bound to appeal to an old statistician like myself).  But this Conceptual Selling book is light years ahead of learning about closing techniques, cold calling skills and psychological pressure points – and that can only be a good thing in the selling world.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Yankee Doodle Dandy

I decided to start watching the American Film Institute’s list of the Top 100 Greatest Films (which they put together back in 1998), so obviously there’s about a decade’s worth of films that they missed out on.  To rectify that, they put together a new list a year or so ago, but anybody who thinks that somehow The Sixth Sense should be on a list and Amadeus, Doctor Zhivago and My Fair Lady should not be is really not getting my vote of confidence.

So I’ve decided to work through the original list from 1998.  Anyway, you can definitely tell this is an American list of films, because I doubt there’d be any other country in the world that would put this on its list.

Yankee Doodle Dandy tells a rather glamorous only-the-good-parts version of the life of George M Cohan, a leading Vaudeville singer/dancer/actor/writer/producer.  Told in the form of a big flashback, with George M narrating his life story to President Franklin Roosevelt, the story runs from George’s earliest days in the 1880s, when he was born to theatrical parents. As he grew up, he and his sister and his mum and dad became known as The Four Cohans, and toured all around America.

But it was George who really made a name for himself.  Having a knack for coming up with musicals and songs that were really patriotic, hummable and crowd-pleasing, his name soon became huge on Broadway.  Finally, in World War I, due to a couple of songs (Grand Old Flag and the rather naive but difficult-to-get-out-of-your-head hit, Over There) he became a wartime hero, with those songs becoming the inspiration for the soldiers in the field.

All of which was quite timely, considering that this film was released in 1942, when America was first plunged into the war and had no idea how it would all turn out.  This flag-waving, go-get-’em, America rules the world film was the perfect pick-up for a nation that needed cheering up in a dark hour.

So how is it now in 2008, when I’m not even American?  Well, I will be honest – while I can see how all that patriotic stuff would be completely moving for an American, as an Aussie, it doesn’t do so much for me.  In fact, when you combine this film with the extras on this disc (a newsreel from the period, a short wartime film about an Air Force pilot), it amazes me how cheesy the propaganda of the day feels.  Also, I didn’t realise it, but America had never lost a war at this stage, so the sheer confidence of the attitude at that time is jaw-dropping in its naivety.

But they did win the war, so maybe bravado does go a long way.

Anyway, I digress.  Back to the film.  I think you’d only like this if you like either musicals or James Cagney, and preferably both.  His acting job is very witty, with his rapid-fire one-liners and awesome tap dancing routines.  (Like the real George M, his singing voice leaves a bit to be desired.) He won an Oscar for this performance, and he thoroughly deserved it.  For that reason along, this film is worth a look.

Also, if you get hold of this DVD (which is – surprise, surprise – only available in the States on Region 1 DVD), the extras on the film are quite extensive and contain lots of fascinating information about filmmaking in the era, and how the film was received.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Die Hard With a Vengeance

And finally we get around to number three in the franchise. Obviously, by this stage (some years after the first two), Bonnie Bedelia had decided she no longer wanted to reprise the role of McClane’s wife, and so she’s nowhere to be seen in this movie.  We only hear that he’s apparently having difficulties with his marriage and she’s in LA.

Which is a pity, because it means that McClane’s now borderline alcoholic, world-weary detective has no real emotional reason to drive him through the events of this film.  It just becomes purely about the chase.

Perhaps for that reason, the scriptwriters threw in Samuel L. Jackson’s character – who livens things up by constantly seeing a racist under every bush, and haranguing one and all with his sharp tongue throughout the entire picture.

But characters aside, how was the movie?  As far as the action goes, it stands up pretty well.  Considering that 30 seconds into the movie, a building blows up, there’s no real mucking around on the part of John McTiernan (who directed the first film, plus Predator, if you’re really into your trivia).  And certainly Jeremy Irons, as the rather bemused German criminal whose gang has unleashed all this calamity upon New York, has great fun doing all the ultra bad guy stuff.

Action films are a rather personal thing.  By the time I got to this third film, I was finding that variations on driving fast, blowing things up, death-defying leaps from great heights, ducking bullets, etc. was getting a bit tired.  Some people never get tired of these things and could happily lap up every single one of this genre that comes out at the cinemas.  I can put up with it about once a year.  But I’ve now seen three of these films in the six months . . . so I’m kind of overdosing here.

I’ll give it 3 1/2 as well, but with a preference still being for the second film.

DVD Review: Die Hard 2 – Die Harder

I just watched the third Die Hard movie last evening and was going to review it, but just realised that I never actually reviewed Die Hard 2.  You can read my review of the original here.  I seem to be in a bit of a minority here, but I actually preferred this second movie over the original.  I’m not entirely sure, and these things are a bit subjective, but I just found the pacing of the second film to be stronger.

Somewhere in the middle of the first film, it seemed to drag a bit.  But this film seemed more relentless.  Directed by Renny Harlin, this film very cleverly builds from the first hints that something might be going wrong at Dulles Airport in Washington DC (or is it in Virginia and near DC? . . . I forget) to full-blown chaos involving hijackings, terrorists and who knows what.

Also, driving the story, which I like, is the idea that John McClane, trying finally to spend some quality-time with his long-suffering wife, is interrupted yet again by the massive emergency which takes place at the airport.

Anyway, this is a movie to be experienced and not really analysed, so I don’t have to say too much more.  3 1/2 out of 5.

New Look

Just happened to be flicking through different layouts for the blog and came across this one.  It’s off the rack, but it’s a bit easier on the eyes to read and looks a bit cleaner on the whole.  So it’ll do for now.

Movie Review: Black Book

In the local St George area, a group of film enthusiasts has got together to create a little community movie theatre called The Film Seen. Living, as I do, in a virtual desert island shire for arthouse movies, the idea of being able to catch up on arthouse films only 5 minutes from home seemed like a nice idea. So I joined up for three months, and this was the first film up (they do one a month).

I’ve got to tell you, when the words “A Film By Paul Verhoeven” came up, I was already pre-judging this film. You may not know his name, but you’ll have heard of the films that he’s made in Hollywood: Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Hollow Man, etc. As far as I’m concerned, the guy is the king of sleaze. Any excuse he can get to ramp up the sex and violence, and he will do so.

So how on earth is he going to do it any differently in a Dutch film about World War II? The answer – he’s not. This film is based on true events, and apparently the research undertaken to make the film was immense. Certainly, the look and feel of the film was amazing, with everything looking true to life. But then again, that happens in most costume dramas, nowadays. So let’s move on to the story.

The story is of Rachel Stein, a young Jewish woman who had to go into hiding from the Nazis. Due to a few particularly unfortunate circumstances, she falls in with the Dutch underground resistance, and goes to work for them. Soon she ends up – much to Verhoeven’s glee, I’m sure, as he was researching this story – going to work to spy on the Nazis. By sleeping with one of the top commanders. Cue lots of nudity.

Fortunately, there is a bit more to the story than this and, from this point on, the story turns into a fairly complex tale of intrigue and resistance fighting. The one thing to be said for Verhoeven is that due to his Hollywood years, there’s not a dull moment in his film. The movie becomes as tense and exciting as any Hollywood thriller that you’ve seen.

And the film does drive home the horror and the craziness of the war years and by the end of the film’s nearly two and a half hours, I was utterly drained by it all, as were most of the fairly elderly audience that were with me.

So look, as a version of one of the war’s interesting historical footnotes, I found it utterly compelling. But it appears that a soft-porn action director is still a soft-porn action director, regardless of what material he’s working with.

3 out of 5.

Quick Review: I Am Bob

Just happened to see this on TV.  It’s a short film about Bob Geldof, and they actually managed to persuade the man himself to star in it.  (Though reports on the internet say that when the filming was all over, he said, “I’m never doing anything like that ever again.”)

Based around his reputation for being a cranky old fellow, this 19-minute short starts with Bob driving through the countryside with his chauffeur.  Due to a bit of a mixup during a toilet stop, Bob gets stranded outside a country pub in the middle of the night with no wallet and no phone.

Desperate to try to get some money to be able to leave the pub, he has no choice but to enter the “Celebrity Lookalike” competition that is taking place that night in the pub.

You can watch the whole thing here (but I should throw in a warning about the language).  Poor old Bob.  You do feel quite sorry for him by the end.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Charlie Chan at the Opera

My Dad always used to tell me that when he was a kid, some of his favourite films were the Charlie Chan films, which featured a Chinese detective who solved mysteries.  But by the time I was around, I never saw any Charlie Chan on TV or on video in Australia, so I was never able to experience this phenomenon for myself.

But now, thanks to the wonders of eBay and the willingness of studios to rake through their back catalogue for movies to put onto DVD, I was able to catch up with this film, considered one of the best of the lot.

Looked at now from a distance of so many decades (this film was made in 1936), this film provides quite an entertaining 70 minutes.  Boris Karloff plays a madman who escapes from an insane asylum to track down his old wife, who he thinks attempted to kill him years before in a fire at the opera house.  Said wife, who is performing in an opera Carnival when the movie opens, doesn’t realise that her old husband actually survived and is horrified when a death threat arrives in the mail.

Enter Charlie Chan (portrayed by the non-Asian Swede, Warner Oland, who was one of three actors to portray Charlie in 46 films and a TV series), his “number one son”, Lee, and a rather dopey American police force to save the day.  Nowadays, you’d never be able to portray an Asian character like this – actually, scrap that – I watched Pirates of the Caribbean 3 on holidays, and I’m not sure if Chow Yun-Fat’s character wasn’t as stereotypical as this one.  However, I suspect that you wouldn’t be able to get away with Charlie’s broken English, and his little comments which sound like they come from fortune cookies.  But on the other hand, he’s a darn sight smarter than the cops, who come across as total ignoramuses, so maybe it’s white people who are being sent up in this film?

Plotwise, it’s a bit more convoluted than I gave it credit for.  As one reviewer said, “[Boris] Karloff is nothing less than the most obvious red herring in cinema history.”  With a couple of little twists, and a last-minute reveal, what this most reminds me of is an episode of Murder, She Wrote or Monk, albeit without the flashbacks.  This would fit in quite well with vintage Agatha Christie radio serials of the time.  This is more of a light and fluffy TV detective, rather than a great big-screen mystery film.  But, hey, it’s all fun.

2 1/2 out of 5.

CD Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey (Soundtrack)

This soundtrack was stuck in as the second disc of a two-disc limited edition DVD set of 2001: A Space Odyssey that I bought years ago when it first came out on DVD.

If you’ve seen the film, then you probably already know what type of music to expect.  Originally, Stanley Kubrick employed Alex North (who did the soundtrack to Spartacus) to compose the soundtrack for this film.  But when he saw the temporary track, he changed his mind.  Temporary tracks are usually other soundtracks, bits of classical music, etc. that filmmakers use as a guide to what the final soundtrack will sound like.

But when Kubrick saw the opening shot of the film (a famous shot of planets lining up with one another) set to the opening moments of Richard Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra,  that sold him on it.  And because of that decision, to this day, Thus Spake Zarathustra has become one of the most instantly recognisable classical music themes of all time.

In addition to this, the music of the other Strauss (Johann) features with the famous Blue Danube Waltz, which was an unlikely choice for a space movie, but works wonderfully in its context in the film.

These are the easy to listen to bits of the soundtrack.  The composer who is actually featured most heavily in this soundtrack is Gyorgy Ligeti, whose music is mostly atmospheric atonal music.  As far as atonal music goes, it’s clever stuff, and in the film it never fails to creep me out. But to sit and listen to, I wouldn’t call it a whole lot of fun.

Combine that with the fact that there’s only enough music for about half an hour. So for that reason a lot of the pieces are repeated twice, in slightly different versions.  (You get an abridged version of a Ligeti piece as it appears in the film, then a bit later a full version of the original piece.)

Not my favourite soundtrack of all time, by any means.  2 1/2 out of 5.

DVD Review: The Usual Suspects

Now here’s a film that I haven’t seen for a long while and was kind of nice to revisit.

The Usual Suspects was one of my favourite films from the 90s, which I remember fondly seeing back in 1995. I was just starting to become more of an avid filmgoer, and I was starting to follow reviews. I managed to see this one the very first week that it was out in Brisbane, at the very first screening on a Thursday morning. I distinctly remember that day because I was so mindblown that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the day.

This film tells the story of five criminals in New York, who are pulled in for a police lineup, all loudly protesting their innocence. While moping around their gaol cell, they decide to band together to pull off a crime. And then another one. And then another.

In the meantime, in the present day (six weeks later), on the other side of America in California, police are questioning the two remaining survivors of a massacre on a burned-out boat in San Pedro Harbor. It seems that somehow these five criminals got themselves involved in what was going on in the boat.

Getting from the line-up to the boat is interesting enough, but when the name of Keyser Soze is mentioned, the story ramps up. All of a sudden, it seems that behind the crime on the boat may have been the most legendary mobster of all time – the Hungarian Keyser Soze. In fact, he’s so legendary, does he even exist?

This is just one of the many mysteries to come out in this amazingly complex mystery thriller. What made this film such a headtrip for many audiences was that the narrative of the story is rather unusual – it is all centred around an interview between tough Customs official, Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) and the sole surviving of the five criminals, the crippled Verbal Kint (Kevin Spacey). Unlike a regular detective story, where we, the audience, only know as much as the detective finds out and usually share his level of knowledge, this story puts us in the position of observing the two men and trying to piece things together from what they tell us.

Both the interrogator and the interrogated know information that the other doesn’t, and as the interview progresses, both of the men feed us the information we need to put it all together. And the story is stretched to such an incredible level, that only really in the final minutes does everything come together. But the hour and a half leading up to that is never less than riveting.

A word also should be said about the phenomenal soundtrack by John Ottman. If a film like this was made nowadays, we’d give it a pumping rock soundtrack, without a doubt. But instead, Ottman (who also did the brilliant editing work on this film) crafted an absolutely gorgeous soundtrack. I had the chance to hear from John at a special Q & A in Sydney a couple of years ago, and amazingly they had to record the soundtrack in section with just a handful of stringed instruments, etc. because they didn’t have enough room in the studio to fit a full orchestra. You wouldn’t think to hear it – it’s incredibly rich and beautiful, and the opening and closing credits resemble more of a piano concerto than anything else. It turned the whole film into an elegant experience that is always dramatic.

For those who are sensitive about language, my memory of the film’s language was entirely correct. Before I saw this film, I wasn’t sure that it was entirely possible to swear this often, in so many ways. But it is, and Christopher McQuarrie’s script pulls no punches in giving us realistic criminal dialogue.

Watching it again after so many years, I wish I could get temporary amnesia and watch it knowing nothing about it, the way it was the first time – but it still holds up to multiple viewings quite well.

4 1/2 out of 5.