Consultant Spotlight: Charlie Shafer

Charlie Shafer in Peru
Favorite part of being a consultant?

I enjoy the extreme diversity in clients I’ve had over the years. I’ve had everything from computer scientists working on artificial intelligence to administrators of large federal insurance programs. It has been very interesting to see how industries attract different personalities and observe how those personalities approach business challenges.

What is the secret to managing a successful proposal?

Measured flexibility. We start each proposal with a process that assumes an ideal situation and assembly of resources. But, this being real life, that ideal can never be achieved. You should look at each bid and each client with a degree of flexibility in terms of your proposal process and approach. But you also must have basic standards you aren’t willing to compromise, or you’ll risk compliance and evaluation scoring. Each proposal is a negotiation between your ideals as a consultant and your client’s culture and capabilities. If you conduct that negotiation as an advocate for the welfare of the proposal, you’ll do your best work, and your client will also.

Any tips for writing a winning proposal?

I’m from the school of thought that says a proposal can never win you business, it can only prevent you from losing business you ought to have won. That sounds awfully pessimistic, but it affirms the necessity of having a winning strategy before having a winning proposal. Too often we assume the same strategies that have won in the past will win again, and we take the instructions and evaluation criteria for granted. If you look at each solicitation as its own unique game, and you draw up a strategy for winning that game, then writing a winning proposal is a matter of translating that strategy in a manner that will be easiest for an evaluator to evaluate. That means making everything easy to find, which requires meticulously breaking down and following the instructions, and making it easy to score, which means providing the information they ask for in a concise and compelling way. It’s not a matter of writing well, to be honest. It’s a matter of providing the right information in an obvious manner. When an RFP asks you for your capabilities to do X and Y, then it is completely appropriate, and advisable, to start a paragraph, table, or graphic, with “Our capabilities to perform X and Y include…”

Biggest proposal pet peeve?

Any reliance on boilerplate. Half a page of original thought given to the actual RFP is worth much more than three pages from a proposal that won you a big job five years ago.

Where was your last vacation and what was the highlight of the trip?

I went to Toronto with a friend this year right after the end of the fiscal year rush – completely on a whim. While eating lunch, our waitress asked if we were going to something called “Nuit Blanche,” and we said no and inquired further. It sounded like a snooty small outdoor art exhibit to my American ears, so I immediately forgot about it. After a day of touring Toronto, which included witnessing the equally heroic and disgusting 2016 World Poutine Eating Championship*, we grabbed dinner and drinks in China Town. After fielding a lot of questions on our election from locals at a coffee shop, we walked out to an irresistible current of people headed the same direction. We followed. Block after block was shut down for pedestrian traffic, and each block had a few different attractions, or distractions, depending on your perspective. There were rooftop concerts, miniature raves, wild sculptures, performance art, all on the streets, packed with streams of people heading every cardinal direction. It went on like that for miles. That was Nuit Blanche.

* How many pounds of poutine can a human possibly eat in 10 minutes? If you are Joey Chestnut, it’s 25.5 pounds. I never ate poutine before seeing that feat, and I never will after bearing witness to it.

Do you have any hidden talents?

I can draw. I have no natural talent for it, but I practiced every day and took a bunch of classes over the last four years, and I’m decent at it now.

If you could meet anyone in the world (dead or alive) who would it be and why?

Any of my ancestors that were alive when the Spanish conquered the Incan empire. Something like ninety percent of the native population was wiped out by the introduction of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. That entire portion of history is written from a conqueror’s perspective. I want to know how my ancestors survived and how they adapted after their entire way of life suddenly died and changed into something very strange and new.