This conversation is part of the series 'Conversation about Growth', an initiative of 4Future in which we talk to service providers about growth: what is their vision, what are the challenges, how do they deal with this, and what are their priorities for the future ?
Fou-Khan Tsang on growth
“We are originally agricultural accountants, so I would almost say: growth is in our genes. Otherwise it does not live. And I actually think so with growth in organizations. If organizations are not growing, you may wonder: how healthy are they?
So growth is important to us. We prefer to grow organically, so simply by adding customers and by making acquisitions ourselves. I often say: when our own people grow, we also grow as an organization. ”
“For a large part, we are still 'hours times rate' in terms of business. Our growth therefore depends on whether we can get people there. Last year we grew by more than a hundred people, so you can make a dash. At the same time, we currently have fifty vacancies. This means that we cannot fully realize our growth ambition if we cannot fill those vacancies. So personnel is and remains a major challenge for us.
Especially now that the economy is picking up again, you will have another war about talent and we must join in that battle. So far that has been going well for us, otherwise you will not get a hundred people. This is due to two things:
In the first place because employees at Alfa can participate in the organization themselves, everyone. At Alfa we once had a 'management and employee buy-out'. So this company belongs to everyone who works here. And I sometimes say: we are a partnership, but with many sizes. So everyone who works here, from the cleaning lady to me, participates in this organization. And that makes us unique: everyone can become a size with us.
A second reason is that we are at the forefront of sustainability. We have said: 'we want to be the most sustainable accounting firm in the Netherlands'. We see more and more that young people who are new to the labor market want to work for a company that does not just make a profit for the sake of making a profit. And I notice that we are attracting young people who say: "I want to work for a company that also improves the world."
More technology, less 'hours x rate'
“The second major challenge is the transformation to a company that is less dependent on 'hours times rate'. In the administrative service document in particular, we are seeing increasing automation. Then you should think of, for example, 'robotic accounting' and the use of artificial intelligence. You will also receive other revenue models, such as subscription forms or fixed prices.
But that technology does come at the expense of physical labor. There is the challenge: how do you move towards a sustainable business model in the future, while still achieving turnover and margin while the way you were used to working disappears?
It is also important, of course, how customers respond to such changes. I do see differences there: you have customers who believe that automation is no more than normal, who expect you to do this 'full swing'. And you have customers who are more traditional. I also have customers who say: 'I think hourly rates are very fair because then I know how many hours you work'. So the market responds differently to technological changes. "
About Alfa Accountants and Advisors
Alfa Accountants en Adviseurs is a nationally active organization with more than 900 specialists in accountancy and business advice. Alfa believes that (local) entrepreneurship is the sustainable engine of the economy and wants to keep that engine running and more powerful by optimizing the results of SME entrepreneurs and creating long-term value. Alfa does this by offering broad financial knowledge locally and connecting it to specialist industry knowledge. With an eye not only for the business aspects of the entrepreneurial life, but also for the human side.
“We do a lot of sales at Alfa compared to the average accounting firm. We are really successful in that. We see sales as part of the role of all our people, it does not happen automatically.
When I came in here no one knew what a 'sales funnel' is, now they know it. We work with sales teams and map the entire acquisition process: Which market are we targeting? What is our objective? How many people should we approach to win that many customers? We all calculate that back with sales funnels and then of course we measure whether it is going well afterwards. So sales are very important to us. "
"Everyone prefers to go to a customer, submit a quotation and then immediately receive a 'yes'. Unfortunately: that world no longer exists. You have to hold on longer."
"A lot of people think: I'm going to visit a customer and if he says no, that's a no. But maybe you should follow that company for much longer. Customers have a relationship of trust with their current accountant that they don't just cancel. About in general, we follow a prospect for about 3 years because we have learned that it concerns the second, third, fourth, sometimes fifth contact. Having the focus on that customer really well, that is the most important thing. "
“Of course we also have challenges with professionals when it comes to acquisition. Because the basis of professionals is that - certainly with accountants - they are not inherently very commercial boys or girls. So you have to work on that by training people and talking to people. That is why, for example, we do a lot of role-playing games with actors where you experience: How do you enter a conversation? How does such a conversation run and what do you encounter? Did you pick up the signals the actor gave and how did you react to that? We also record those role plays, which is always exciting.
So we pay a lot of attention to commercial skills, where we think it is very important that people remain authentic. We don't have commercial incentives like bonuses, that doesn't really fit our culture and it doesn't fit the role of an accounting firm. Our incentives are based on quality and not on commercialism. With commercialism, the reward is that the customer has chosen you. "
Proactive customer organization
“One of the most important goals for the coming years is what we call 'the proactive customer organization': focus on the customer. We have said: we want to be more proactive with the customer, listen even better and know even better what is going on with that customer. Then you only realize what that customer really is about.
Certainly in our profession you have to understand very well what is going on with a customer in order to be able to advise him properly. We must be even more proactive in this. We do this by engaging in even more dialogue with that customer and by applying technology.
The administration is becoming more and more digital, which makes it increasingly successful to keep the administration up to date. Then you can advise much more proactively and also use tools that trigger that. If we see something strange in the administration, or rather: if the software sees something strange, we will immediately contact the customer about this. ”
“Looking at the future, I expect the accounting world to look very different. I sometimes say: every company becomes a software company. The Alfa of 5 years will therefore look very different. I think we have gone through a major transformation. We look very closely at all technological developments and Alfa would like to take the lead in this.
Due to developments such as robotisation and artificial intelligence, a lot of manual work will disappear. We have said: we would prefer to still be the same size in 5 years' time, because employment is also important to us. That means we probably need more customers. Our ambition is therefore to grow even more. "
Twenty-first century skills
“The short-term implication is that you now have to invest in your people, in what we also call 'twenty-first century skills'. How do we get people involved in that technological adventure? For this you will have to think differently, be able to handle IT well and also learn other 'soft skills'. Because as a person you make the distinction compared to technology.
We find continuous education very important. Every employee at Alfa has an annual budget to study. We are talking to people about their competences, where they can improve and how they can shape their own future. Employees will also continue to work until age 68, so we need to keep our people fresh and ready. This is partly the responsibility of the people, but we as an organization also have a responsibility to include everyone in this. ”
Growth does not come by itself
“If I ever have to hand over the baton to a successor - hopefully that will take a while - I would like to say that growth will not come automatically. That you have to work very hard for that every day. And that you also have to earn growth. You never grow without sweat; it will not come automatically, you really have to do your best for that! ”
About 'Conversation about Growth'
The growth of business services organizations is on the rise again after a difficult period. Nevertheless, growth remains high on the agenda. For example, because the growth is not going fast enough or not in the desired areas, or because it proves difficult to attract (and retain) good people to man the growth. Or because professionals lack the commercial skills and drive to make the most of growth opportunities. In addition, the sector is faced with many new developments in areas such as technology and revenue models, shortages on the labor market and changing wishes of 'millennials'.
'Conversation about Growth' is an initiative of 4Future in which we talk with directors of accountancy and law firms, consultancy firms and ICT companies about growth: what is their vision, what are the challenges, how do they deal with this, and what are their priorities for the future?