This year marks Nicolas Potier’s 10th year at Bruneau, but the CEO remembers his first day at the office supply and equipment retailer like it was yesterday. “When I walked through the entrance, Jean-Marie Bruneau, the founder of the company, was there to meet me,” he recalls.

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“He was 80 years old then and not even a shareholder of the company anymore, but I believe he wanted to see for himself who was going to lead the business he had nurtured for the past 55 years.

“It made a strong impression on me. I realised that this was a company that still had a face behind it; that the spirit of the founder was still there.” This spirit was – and still is – one that puts customer service at the forefront.

“Even though Jean-Marie Bruneau has since passed away, his values remain important to us,” Nicolas says. Customer service in 2020, however, looks very different from what it was when Jean-Marie founded Bruneau in 1955.

Where a customer’s first touchpoint used to be a mail order catalogue or a door-to-door salesperson, it is now becoming increasingly web-based. “Ten years ago, when I first started in this industry, the percentage of orders taken through the web instead of through the phone or in writing by mail was less than 30%,” Nicolas recalls.

“Now, it’s close to 90%.” He estimates that the firm has invested about €55 million into its digital transformation over the past decade. “We modernised our backend platform so that the website can provide a seamless customer experience. Product database management was one of the key focal points because it affects the search function and how easily customers can find what they want.”

In addition, the use of artificial intelligence has also proven to be crucial in enhancing user-friendliness. Through a smart algorithm, Bruneau’s website is now able to notice patterns in a customer’s search process.

By gathering data on the keywords typed into the search bar and the results that received clicks, the site is able to offer more relevant products that are likely to have better click rates with each following search.

Our relationships with our company investors are very important to us.

One of the main challenges of the firm’s transformation process was providing a personalised experience for every individual client. Bruneau works with both small businesses – whose purchasing power may not be unlike single private customers – and larger corporations that often buy in bulk and negotiate more advantageous rates.

“Pricing management that accounts for our two main types of customers on a single website with a single IT system is more complex than it may seem,” Nicolas explains. With digitisation, direct interactions may have become few and far between, but when they do happen, clients are expecting more out of them than before.

“Something that strikes me is that today, whenever customers have human contact with us, whether through the phone or face-to-face with a sales representative, they expect commercial and technical competence. They are more demanding in terms of the level of expertise they want to see from us,” he says.

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Providing this topnotch service requires effective bridging between Bruneau’s digital and manual operations. Through clever use of the data gathered from the customer’s time spent on the site, sales representatives are able to understand a customer’s preferences at a glance, thereby ensuring a seamless transition from the digital to the manual service.

Although the focus has been on all things digital in recent years, there’s one real-world aspect of the business where Nicolas thinks improvements are long overdue – delivery.

“We are able to deliver in less than a day because for most of the products we sell, we have them in stock,” he says. “However, customers are now demanding more precise delivery timings, such as a two-hour window during which they can expect the goods to show up. We have yet to develop a system to enable this.”

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From optimising the website at www.bruneau.fr and harnessing data to improving deliveries, perhaps Bruneau’s journey isn’t one of digitalisation, but of modernisation.

“One of the biggest challenges we face right now is that a big chunk of our revenue still comes from very traditional office supplies. Printing consumables such as ink come to mind,” Nicolas reveals.

“But the market for these products is slowly declining due to digitalisation, so we must change our product mix and position ourselves better in growing segments.”

Janitorial and sanitary products and personal protective equipment come to mind as natural candidates for these growing segments. This is especially true in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, during which the demand for these segments has exploded and for which Bruneau is now very well positioned.

Gaining traction in the former category are “ergonomic chairs, tables and even desktop additions that make using the computer more comfortable”, particularly with the acceleration of home offices due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“We are getting our purchasing and product marketing teams to put their focus on these products,” says Nicolas. But this in no way means that the firm is abandoning the segments that currently still constitute its main source of income.

“We will continue to maintain very good expertise on the traditional products because people still need them, and as long as there is a need, we will be here.” As Bruneau continues to grow, Nicolas is appreciative of the backing of the firm’s partners and dedicated team.

“Our relationships with our company investors are very important to us. We used to be a family company, but are now majority owned by Equistone. We are always open with them regarding our business decisions, and they are always supportive,” he says.

“Plus, a significant share of Bruneau’s capital is distributed among the management team and more than 100 employees. This combination of solid trust and the high level of financial motivation we’ve given our workforce form strong success factors for the firm.”

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