CCO Talk: Consumers in the boardroom of… JBC

Meet our CCO (Chief Consumer Officer) Talk series, offering people from the C suite a chance to share their views on driving consumer centricity and activation in their organizations. This time, I had the opportunity to talk with Bart Claes, CEO of JBC. JBC is a Belgian family-owned fashion retailer, founded in 1975 by Jean-Baptiste Claes.
Today, his son and daughter, Bart and Ann Claes, are running the company, with Bart acting as CEO and Ann as Chief Buying Officer. JBC is recognized as one of the top three leading retail fashion brands in Belgium and Luxemburg, next to H&M and C&A. Through its 134 stores, JBC realizes a yearly turnover of more than 250 million euro and employs more than 1,300 people. Just recently, JBC was rewarded as ‘Best Belgian Retail Chain’ and ‘Retailer of the Year 2013’. During my talk with Bart, I wanted to understand how important consumer-centric thinking is at JBC and how the fashion retailer puts it into daily practice.

The fact that consumers recently awarded JBC with the Best Retail Chain Award seems to indicate that consumer centricity is an essential part of the JBC DNA. Has this focus on the consumer always been an integral part of JBC’s strategy?

Our focus on consumers has been there from the start, but our approach has changed gradually over time from a more sales-oriented to a more relationship-oriented one. During the first 15 years, we approached consumers rather opportunistically, taking an entrepreneurial mindset and optimizing our offering and service to maximize sales and growth. After attending a seminar by Erik Van Vooren on relationship marketing end of the 80’s, I became triggered by the power of relationship thinking. That is when we introduced our customer loyalty card and started building our customer database to drive consumer intimacy. But more importantly it was the start of a new way of looking at our customers, putting them in the heart of our organization and giving them priority over everything else. I must admit it was not always easy to convince my father and sister of this more relational approach, with both of them focusing strongly on product leadership.

While product quality is of key importance, it is hard to compete with strong international fashion retailer brands such as H&M on product leadership or operational excellence. As we are a local hero brand, I am convinced that our unique competitive differentiator is an obsessive focus on customers, paving the way for long-term sustainable growth. We work hard to get closer to the daily life of our customers, bringing that ‘local touch’ through being a Belgian family business, working with local designers and being approachable and service-minded inside our stores.

Would you define JBC’s consumer centricity strategy as dominantly offensive or defensive?

As a football player, I have always played in an offensive position. The same holds for JBC. Since 1997, we managed to increase our business year after year in challenging conditions, competing with strong international brands and being confronted with one of the biggest economic downturns ever. It is heartwarming to receive recognition from consumers as well as professionals in the retail industry. As a result, consumer centricity it is not a defensive reaction to something happening in our environment; it has become part of who we are. It is our over-arching umbrella strategy for growth, our way of doing business. As consumer centricity is of all ages, cultures and markets, it should also support our internationalization strategy. Having recently opened up a few stores in Germany, I am anxious to see whether we can successfully roll out our consumer-focused strategy to other markets as well.

In your opinion, what are the top 3 characteristics of a consumer-centric company?

First and foremost, people need to want it. You cannot force people to become people-centric, it has to be part of who you are. We expect our people to perform well functionally, but equally so to connect emotionally with our customers in order to make a real difference in the marketplace. There is still room for improvement here, for example by integrating this dimension more explicitly in our recruitment process.
A second characteristic of a consumer-centric company is a strong ‘we’ culture: finding solutions together with one goal in mind, that of serving our customers better. If you want to become the most customer-centric organization, you need to be obsessed with people and with what makes them tick.
Finally, consumer-centric organizations excel in the way they make customers heard throughout their organization. This is the core reason why we have decided to set up a continuous Consumer Consulting Board (‘JBC Family’) with 150 consumers, challenging and supporting us in defining and executing our strategy.

The ‘JBC Family’ community was launched only recently. How do you feel about the impact it has generated for JBC so far?

Our decision to set up a Consumer Consulting Board was mainly driven by the need for consumers to help us make more focused decisions, taking the consumers’ interests at heart. It should help us set sharper priorities and bring the voice of consumers inside our organization. What was really striking after I sat in on the first debrief session covering 3 weeks of consumer collaboration activity is that I learned something completely new. What I learned was not only extremely important from a strategic perspective, but I had never emerged before in any other kind of research we have undertaken. It proves that this way of listening to customers brings something new to the table and confronts us much more directly with our own reality. It really puts a mirror in front of us, taking us out of our own comfort zone. To some extent that is really scary, but it is that kind of vulnerability that we need to cultivate in order to keep making progress in a highly competitive environment.

Thanks, Bart, for sharing your passion about the customer. Curious to see what steps you will be taking next!

Want to find out more on our consumer centricity approach? Read our paper Why every company needs a Chief Consumer Officer and discover five steps to become a consumer-centric thinking company.

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