“Nothing Personal, it’s just business” – Otto Berman
It’s just business. Profit and loss, dollars and cents. It’s not personal. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Every business decision affects people – benefits some, hurts others. ‘It’s just business’ is a meaningless phrase designed to make the person saying it feel more justified in what they’re doing, applying cold logic to human impact.
Over the years we’ve seen this phrase applied in many forms, often by high-level executives who, over time, have become increasingly distant from the day-to-day activities of the companies they oversee. And that makes sense – to them, the decisions they make are just business, that’s how you get ahead and win on a commoditised level. Logical process is weakened by sentiment, so if you can compartmentalise that element in order to maximise benefit, then you should. Right? The shareholders need answers, the board needs action. ‘It’s just business’. But it’s not, is it?
In many circles, ‘it’s just business’ has become an acceptable, even desirable approach. It captures the bravado of Gordon Gecko, the uncompromising mindset of billionaire tycoons – images like these reinforce the idea that ‘it’s just business’ is how successful people approach the world, how they ‘get shit done’, but the actual origin of the phrase may not be what you think. Otto Berman is the man believed to have coined the term ‘it’s just business’, using it regularly as he laid out the situation to those who came before him. Berman was an accountant for the mob in the 1930s, a business where distancing yourself from the outcome was a pretty imperative requirement. As they took the month’s protection money or dealt punishment to those who’d mis-stepped, Berman would utter the words – nothing personal, just how it is. That’s the origin of ‘it’s just business’, not some high flying exec or ultra-successful mogul. It stems from a petty criminal, a man who had no problem taking whatever he could from whomever he could get it.
And therein lies the issue with ‘it’s just business’. While many have built an ‘it’s just business’ into their own professional approach, the ethos of ‘it’s just business’ clashes against the rising imperative of social business. The key to success in social is, in many ways, the antithesis of ‘it’s just business’. Growing profit, reducing margins – these are non-human, business factors, but years of intense focus on these necessary elements has moved many away from the essence of how we connect and build a sustainable brand in the first place. While fundamental operating requirements remain the core of success, the disruption of social media is forcing a re-assessment of accepted business norms. It’s not just numbers and figures we need to consider, but people and place, hearts and minds – how we connect and build communities around what we do.
Nothing’s ever ‘just business’. At the end of the day, decisions need to be made based on logic and benefit. But it’s always personal to someone. It’s personal to anyone whose life’s affected, any individual that the decision impacts in any way. Customer experience is always personal. And now, with every person being given their own media platform, their own broadcast channels with which to reach out and have their say on anything, brands need to recognise the importance of connecting on a human level.
We have access to more data, more correlated info, more connecting behaviours than ever before. Ninety per cent of all the data in the world has been generated in the last two years, an amazing fact to consider. And as more interactions move online, even more data is created, enabling businesses to expand their thinking, their customer journey maps, their buyer persona details. More than ever, you can reach people on a personal level, on specific, interest-based, commonalities, where their individual needs connect with your offerings. Social business demands a personal touch, a collaborative effort between consumer and supplier. Through their expanded networks, people are using the collective knowledge of their social communities to clarify and better understand their every purchase decision – you need to be a part of that process. Word of mouth travels faster and wider than ever before, good businesses are lifted, bad businesses are dropped, and largely, this is based on what people say, what people think, what impact you’ve had on their lives. Every interaction is a potential review, a potential public broadcast about your products and services. In each case, it’s not just business, it’s people’s lives, it’s how you’re able to assist and help with their problems.
‘It’s just business’ is an approach we’ve taken to remove the human element from our decisions, to make it easier to make tough calls. But social media is negating that approach, empowering consumers by providing them with a genuine voice. Social media is the media, each potential client is a broadcaster in their own right. And it’s never just business to the person on the other end of the line. Your interactions impact their real lives – understanding this is key to building a true social culture, and a stronger business for the connected era.
‘It’s just business’ is not a philosophy, not an approach. It’s an excuse, a moral escape clause adapted from standover men and criminal gangs. While the general public don’t need to know every complexity of your business process, it works to your advantage to consider that, in every interaction, it’s always personal. And really, it always has been. Lives are affected, opinions are established, connections are built in every process. Communities are built.
It’s always personal. The more your brand can absorb this, the better placed you’ll be to meet the rising demands of the connected world.