Accountancy firms are already feeling the chill: digitalisation will have a tremendous impact on their business. Vandelanotte++ is looking to the future with TomorrowLab.

Vandelanotte++ is a family firm, founded by Roger Vandelanotte in 1948. The current CEOs, Hein and Nikolas Vandelanotte, are now managing 300 staff, spread across eight sites in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia. They realise that they are facing a digital revolution, they say. "A great deal of what we do, particularly conventional bookkeeping and generating of financial statements will be almost completely automated within the next five to ten years. Nowadays, number crunching is still a very important part of our turnover, but the advance of automation will cause that to dry up. When you realise that a large proportion of your business is going to disappear, then you have to think hard about what you are still going to be able to do."

In the autumn of 2016, they embarked with TomorrowLab on the 'DNA process: Innovation for SMEs'. First a series of studies, interviews with key figures, such as people at Board level and the partners, a customer survey, and a series of workshops with the core team and a broader team. The core team consists of the two CEOs, the IT, HR and Sales Manager. The partners and shareholders are on the larger team. The aim: to develop new business models for the future. "The first phase is: where are we all heading? Many different issues were raised, from many different angles. At a certain time, you even think: how are we ever going to come up with a serious answer here. Ultimately, we succeeded."

Eyes opened

The word 'crystallisation' crops up regularly during the discussion. A number of options for the future were taken to the extreme during this exercise. Do you opt for simple work based on technology or for advanced advice and value added provided in a personal manner? Will you become a service provided for other firms, or will you continue visiting clients? What do those options mean for your people, for your infrastructure, your sources? "You are trying to move to an evolution in which your DNA and what you aim to achieve are situated close together. The concept derived from the exercise, remains very clear and also fits with the custom work with which they already feel at home nowadays. "We specialise in our client. In practice, that means that in the long term, we will drop the simple figure work." They have already had discussions about that, and have started a change process, but TomorrowLab's systematic approach really opened their eyes. "Through the way that you really have to come up with reasoned arguments and put them into practice, we saw that we had not appreciated the full consequences of this strategy. That we were still doing things that went against the strategy. You get caught in two minds, even though you say officially: that's the way it is. Seeing the options in sharp focus really helps. You reach the conclusion that there are certain things you are not going to do any more. Which is almost as important as what you are going to do. For example, Vandelanotte++ has a digital platform that works well, and in which they have invested a lot. "Even if you have a good product already, the chance of somebody catching up and overtaking you is even greater. We will need to re-evaluate the investment that we are making in it. Our platform works, and it has a certain value, but it is not our intention to become a digital provider.

Testing subscriptions

"We want to provide advice that creates added value for our customers. For that, our clients need the best know-how and we need to invest in it. A mere digital solution is the diametric opposite of that. For custom work, we must take account of the risk sensitivity of a manager, the situation of the company and the family situation. What investments do we need to make in order to increase our knowledge about our client still further? How do we build an even more intensive relationship with our client? That is a shift in focus and resources." "The knowledge that we have about our client and collecting that information will have to be seriously upscaled. We already have a lot of information, but it is still inside people's heads. That knowledge must become transferable. That means not only a change of mentality, but also a switch in HR. We will have people working on the processing of figures in the most efficient way possible and people who evolve towards the relationship with clients. We are learning to look back less, which is what accounting professionals do based on figures, and learning to look forward more. What can we do with that, and what can the client do with it? We are still looking for accountants and auditors, but we are also looking for experts in investment grants, HR, cybersecurity and a much broader range of services to put the client's vision into practice." "Where are you going to make the difference, that is something that we have spent a lot of time on. Why should a customer buy from us? One of the major findings from the survey of our clients is that when they ask us questions, it costs them money. We are responding to that this autumn by testing out a subscription arrangement. That means the client can ask us any questions without always keeping an eye on the clock. Exceptional issues like a major merger are not covered by the subscription. It is an arrangement that is not common practice yet in our sector. The benefit of this earnings model is that it creates value for the client. You get additional convenience and certainty. We are going to work more proactively, because that formula forces us to earn that fixed fee back for our clients."