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Developing negotiation skills with Annie Chu

Annie discusses the anxiety that can surface during negotiations and shares tactical tips on how Canadian freelancers can develop better negotiation skills.

October 21, 2020

Annie Chu is the Founder of the culinary travel blog, Chu on This, for which she has received the highest recognition for food writing in Canada when she was named Taste Canada Awards Shortlisted Author in 2017. Annie is also a Professional Development Lawyer with The Advocates' Society, a not-for-profit and Canada’s premier advocacy skills training provider.

In this episode, Annie and Mohammed talk about how Canadian freelancers can develop better negotiation skills and get comfortable making it a part of their client engagement process.

Short on time? Skip to the parts you're most interested in.

[01:01] Getting started with freelancing

[03:06] The role of professional development lawyer

[04:41] Transitioning to freelancing as a content creator

[06:47] Matching your skill sets with market demand

[10:51] Mistakes freelancers make when negotiations

[14:52] Process for negotiating with a client

[21:03] How freelancers can develop better negotiation skills

[32:11] Finding a local, affordable lawyer

[33:13] When it doesn't make sense to negotiate

[35:54] Tips for when negotiating with a client

If you enjoyed the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to Freelance Canada on Apple Podcasts or listen to it wherever you get your podcast. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of the episode.

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Annie: I'm excited for this.

Mohammed: Awesome. Well, given I've been sharing what I do, I'd love to know what you do as a freelancer. 

Annie: My freelance hat is mostly in the form of my work through my culinary travel blog called Chu On This. My last name is Chu, so it is a pun. It started when I went to France as an exchange student in 2008 and everyone and their grandma at the time were just starting blogs.

I thought I would jump on the bandwagon, even though the only people who read my blog at the time were my parents when I forced them to. Over the years, I realized that culinary culture is something that I'm very passionate about and, [while] I'm definitely not a professional chef, food is a great way to get to know people.

It's also a great way to encourage me to work on my photography and writing, which are skills I've been developing throughout my life. It has allowed me to also run [a business] alongside my career in law, [whether that be] as a digital creator, blogger, or whatever the title [becomes] throughout the years.

That's what it is. It's under the brand of Chu On This and whatever I feel like doing at the time and whatever people want to see, or I hope they want to see.

Mohammed: I have to say that when I saw your handle and your website, I was like, “Oh my God. That is so good!”

Annie: Thanks!

Mohammed: I feel like your last name might have influenced that food aspect. You know how sometimes someone's last name is let's say Law and they just happen to go into the law?

Annie: Oh, exactly! I went to high school with a guy named Will Sue. He didn't, unfortunately, become a lawyer, but he thought very hard about that career choice just for the namesake.

I do miss the courtroom time and some of the really cool negotiation work that we get to do in that capacity

Mohammed: Speaking of law, what does a professional development lawyer do?

Annie: That's a good question. I would say that my job is 50% law, 50% education. I work for a nonprofit organization called the Advocates’ Society. Essentially, we're a membership-based organization with over 60 lawyers and judges from across Canada — mostly in Toronto, I'll be honest. We work together to create advocacy, training, develop policy, and teach lawyers skills they need to learn throughout their practice that they didn't learn in law school.

As lawyers, we have a pretty strict responsibility to continuously learn and grow as the law and as our practice changes. So, that's what I do and I really love it. It allows me to stay connected to the legal world, but be in education. Doing work where people send me emails thanking me, instead of saying “I hate you.” So, there's a lot of benefits to private practice as well, I won't lie. And I do miss the courtroom time and some of the really cool negotiation work that we get to do in that capacity, but I'm definitely very happy in my current position.

Mohammed: In terms of starting freelancing, it seemed to me, it was more so that you started writing a blog and it was at a time when you were in France if I recall correctly. 

[What made] you think, “[...] This is something that I could actually turn into a side hustle as my creative output, or just as a way to generate additional revenue for myself”?

Annie: I think it was coming to Toronto for law school. I realized how things were changing. [At first], I was just blogging about a few restaurants I was going to and just some small food festivals, but Toronto is a very competitive market.

It really forced me to look at myself and say, “what do I have that's different?” Over the years, the industry has changed so much; I couldn't have monetized it if everyone didn't also want to participate in this change.

[As they say], “The rising tide lifts all boats.” At first, it started with being invited to a media event and realizing, “Oh great. You can get a meal and it's a mutually beneficial exchange.”

Then, the industry started to change [and companies began] seeking out specific people to help promote specific things. And I realized that not a lot of people are writing long-form blog posts, not everybody is in photography, not everybody wants to do what I do. When you realize that there is a lot of value to be created through making content on social media, then you can start working together to see how it can be mutually beneficial.

[When it comes to] freelancing, you have to not just do what you're passionate about, but you also have to think about what other people want, what the world needs, what can make you money, and what you're actually skilled.

Mohammed: I was going through your Instagram feed and one of your recent posts was about Italian bread masterclass. Did you take classes for your calligraphy and for the illustration? Because I was looking at it and I was like, “Wow, that could be something you sell on Etsy and people would totally buy it.”

Annie: Aw, thanks! I haven't taken any classes, but I definitely have had a passion for calligraphy and art for a long time. And I've also been working on things like a stationary greeting card business alongside this brand. So yeah, that's kind of what's in the works at the moment. Spoiler alert!

[When it comes to] freelancing, you have to not just do what you're passionate about, but you also have to think about what other people want, what the world needs, what can make you money, and what you're actually skilled.

[Those] can come together in many ways. For example, I love cooking but, like I said, I'm not a professional chef, so I would sell food to people because I just don't have that skill to that level. But I have found that people have been responding really well to [my art and the other things I do].

Mohammed: And I assume these greeting cards will be food-based?

Annie: Yeah, exactly. There's a lot of food and food-adjacent content.

Mohammed: Amazing. One of the best cards that I received was from my realtor a few years back. I’m the first in my family to buy a place in Canada —  and that’s after being broke and homeless only a few years ago —  so it was quite the shift. After I bought the place, I brought my mom up and she thought she was just checking it out with me and the realtor, not knowing that I had bought the place.

I was like, “What do you think?” Thankfully, she really liked the place because if she said she didn’t, it would have been awkward. So, I told her and she was like, “Oh my gosh!” She was crying and excited. 

And my realtor asked, “What is going on?” So, [I explained that she didn't know I bought the place]. And he [had never been part of that experience]. Anywho, later he got me a bottle of whiskey and a greeting card and the greeting card was so cool because it was a photo of a crib and said, “Hope you enjoy your new crib!” [as a play on the fact that a house is sometimes called a crib]. I just thought that was such a punny, but also funny greeting card and I can remember it so well. I'm so excited to see what your greeting cards end up being.

Annie: Oh, that's such a sweet story! It's so good to hear things like that. And those greeting cards are making a comeback and an impression.

Mohammed: Yes. Oh my God, [...] I totally believe that greeting cards are going to come back, because we still want to be connected.

And since we're not going to the office anymore or able to socialize in-person as much, being able to send something tangible [could take place of that]. So, you can feel [the card’s] texture on your fingers and have a note [to go with it]. That's going to enable us to find new ways or, I guess, resurface old ways, to remain connected and know that there is somebody out there thinking of us.

So, I'm super excited for these greeting cards to come in.

Annie: Well, you'll be the first to know, I guess you already know.

If you're going to be negotiating with other parties, companies, or people, it really is about hoping that the two parties come together to get the desired, mutually beneficial result.

Mohammed: Yeah. And once this podcast comes out, people will also know so I'm excited about that. Nonetheless. In terms of freelancing, when I reached out to you, one of the topics that you had picked up was negotiating. 

That is such a great topic to cover because [for many of the] freelancers I’ve spoken to, there's always this guilt or this imposter syndrome that's associated with negotiating. They think, “Oh no, I don't want to negotiate because I might lose the client or I might look like I'm being difficult or that it may not work out in my benefit as a whole.”

But there's clear value in negotiating, especially ensuring that you maintain your value. So, perhaps we can dive into this by getting a better sense of what are some of the biggest mistakes freelancers make when they're negotiating.

Annie: Yeah. As a freelancer, being a lawyer definitely comes into play because if we didn't negotiate everything, we wouldn't have a job as a lawyer. That's our mentality. And the other mentality is that negotiation doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. In negotiation theory, we often talk about the pie and integrative versus distributive techniques. If you have a pie, you don't always have to cut it [50/50 or even 60/40]. There are ways to metaphorically expand the pie that gives you different options.

If we're talking about biggest mistakes, coming into it thinking that is one of them. There's only room to lose and gain certain things because, at the end of the day, if you're going to be negotiating with other parties, companies, or people, it really is about hoping that the two parties come together to get the desired, mutually beneficial result.

Negotiation isn't a bad word. It's just a process.

Mohammed: That's more so a shift in your mindset.

Annie: That's right. Yeah.

Mohammed: Because a lot of times, even when I've thought about negotiation in the past, it's like, “What am I going to get into? How do I have this conversation with a person and then both come to a mutual conclusion?”

Annie: I'm going to share a little example that's thrown around in the negotiation theory world about the two sisters with the orange.

There's a fight between two sisters because there's only one orange and they both need it. At the end of the day, because they weren't really negotiating, they walked away with neither of them having the orange or only one of them having the orange and the other one being bitter til the end.

What the two sisters would’ve realized, had they only started the conversation, was that one needed the juice to make her recipe and the other one just needed the zest. So, if they had opened up instead of [stuck] with their position [of] needing one orange, and talked about what interests they had, they could have both walked away with a hundred percent of what they needed.

There's a lot of negotiation theory floating around, but a lot of these concepts come from a book called Getting To Yes, by Fisher and Ury. And I always come back to that orange example because it applies to so many different things that we negotiate for, in our lives.

Spoiler alert, there is no such thing as a going rate because you are your own person; your photography style, your audience, the added value that you can bring to something is unlike anyone else’s.

Mohammed: I love that example. It's so visual and tangible and actually kind of perfect given your food interests. I'm actually quite taken back by how simple, but good of an example that is to talk about negotiation. What has been your process for negotiating with clients or helping other people think about negotiating with their clients?

Annie: Most of the time, especially with freelancers who are somewhat established, people are reaching out to them with offers. I always think about them as their interests, you know, and I'll just use myself as an example.

I usually get approached with sponsorship deals for social media blog content. Sometimes there are travel opportunities to go to certain places and write about amazing locations. I want to think about what they’re trying to do. Not the price they're putting on something, but what is their goal?

Are they trying to promote a certain product? Am I trying to get as many people to purchase it or are they just trying to get exposure? Are they trying to elevate the brand? Are they trying to encourage certain people to just get a good feeling? There are so many different ways that people are using social media to get something across.

What you need to do to get that information is to ask, it's that simple. A lot of times people think a big company is coming in to say, “I want you to post a picture and I want to pay you $100 to do it.” Then the influencer, content creator, or what have you, says “Is $100 too much, too little?”

Usually, it's too little. Then, they freak out because they don't have enough information to go by. They don't actually know what is expected of them, how much time it's going to take. They don't know what the going rate is.

And, spoiler alert, there is no such thing as a going rate because you are your own person; your photography style, your audience, the added value that you can bring to something is unlike anyone else’s. And then they usually struggle and write back, “If I'm asking for $150, I'm asking for $500, is that crazy?”

But really, the first email you respond to someone should be, “I would love to know more about what you're looking for to see if we can work together,” to find out if their goals are completely misaligned. [I’ll share a] perfect example of this in the food blogging world: there was a company that reached out to several food bloggers, myself included, with a general proposal saying they wanted someone to promote a product through a series of classes.

[However, the budget that they had to work with was a very low number]. There are food bloggers who talk, and there was a huge discussion about it in a Facebook group forum. I was very, very shocked that no one had even bothered to ask what was actually involved.

Even now, I can't reveal who was involved in this, but my approach to this situation was I wrote back to ask, “What are you actually hoping to achieve?” And once we established a relationship and talked about all the different opportunities, I realized that that number that they had thought of was just random.

It wasn't even based on anything. Once, I got all the information about what kind of classes they were thinking of, what kind of timeframe they had to work with, and their goal of promoting the products in a certain way. I came back with a proposal that I felt was very fair to what I wanted to do for them.

It gave them a lot more value that they weren't even expecting, seeing as I have a bit of a graphic design background. So, I designed recipe sheets that you could use as handouts. I wanted to do blog posts, and I also wanted to do Instagram live videos and stories. I also have a network of people who I could share this product with.

And they were super happy. I was super happy. We negotiated a price that we both thought was great and we've continued the relationship ever since. And it all started with just understanding what it was that the other person wanted to do.

Unfortunately, that’s something that a lot of people in the food blogger industry seemed very hesitant to do.

I just hope that more people can feel the confidence to know themselves. Like that's what the heart of all of this is negotiation. You really have to know yourself, what you're comfortable with, what you're offering.

Mohammed: I think what I've really loved about that story is that you went back and you made the effort to understand what it was that the client was hoping to accomplish and how they got to that price point. The other thing that's even more important is that you didn't just turn around and say, “This is what you want? This is what my price is.”

Instead, you said, “These are your larger objectives [and] there are skill sets that I can also bring to the table to make something that feels a lot more authentic while also ensuring that you get to accomplish the goal business objectives you're setting out to achieve.”

So I really, really liked that.

Annie: Yeah, I just hope that more people can feel the confidence to know themselves. Like that's what the heart of all of this is negotiation. You really have to know yourself, what you're comfortable with, what you're offering. I know a lot of people are out there searching, “What is the average rate that an influencer charges for X?” That's not helpful information, to be honest.

Mohammed: So,with that, how can freelancers develop better negotiation skills?

Annie: A little bit of research out there is definitely key in terms of seeing who else is doing similar things to what you're doing and get to know the market. Not to know exactly what they're being paid, but just to get a feeling. There are a lot of good negotiation books out there.

I told you about getting to yes, but, negotiation is a skill to be learned and it's a theory and there are a lot of interesting, different theories that have been developed over the years, but a huge part is familiarizing yourself with all of the different aspects of it. You have to figure out: What does the other party want? What do you want and what is it? 

[Something that seems] a little bit daunting, but it's actually not, is developing negotiation plans. Just like you would if you were going into a job interview —  you have your resume, maybe you have your cover letter, and you plan out what you're going to wear. You plan out some of the questions that the company might ask, etc. 

Think about going into a negotiation the same way you would for a job interview. And in that negotiation plan, in addition to the positions or interests that you have, for both or multiple parties, you also want to know a couple of important things.

Like, what is your bottom line or reservation point? If you're reading an email and someone says, I'm offering you a hundred dollars to do X, and that already seems insane, maybe that's your reservation point, right? But between your reservation point and the other party's reservation point, that is the zone of possible agreement.

And you might not know this from a first email or a second email, but once you get to know what the interests are, then that zone will become clearer and clearer and you can develop a plan that focuses around that and work with the list of possible options. Like I was saying before, if you have a graphic design background, if you have really strong writing skills, if your photography is good, if you can do video, like if you can do a video with drones... sometimes people don't even think about that as a possibility.

So, if you're sitting here thinking, “I can shoot video.” Okay. No problem. They haven't even thought about that. But if you put that on the table as an item in your final agreement, you're really expanding the pie, so to speak. So, you have to walk into this negotiation process with a plan.

Back when I was in law school working on our negotiation classes, I would literally come up with five-page documents and be like, here's one party, here's the other party, here's what they want, this is what I think they want, this is what I think their reservation point is.

It could be this, it could be that, if it's this, maybe it's that. And I would draw pictures, of course. “Cause now, you know, that's kinda my thing. I would literally draw a pie and be like, “Okay, this is probably what they're thinking,” but who knows? Develop a plan in whatever way is comfortable to you.

And then once you read more, once you have that experience, once you have a few emails that you've seen, you develop a negotiation arsenal and a process that you just get better and better at.

You can always walk away, but in order to walk away, you have to know what you're walking away from and into.

Mohammed: I love your idea about not just having an initial plan, but to invert it and see what could go wrong or what could maybe not work and then come up with the plan for that plan or for that objection or argument, whatever you want to call it.

So, it's essentially not just being surface level, but going a little bit deeper to sort of challenge your own self, to flush out the thinking around each of the potential talking points or negotiation points.

Annie: Yeah. And one other dorky negotiation terminology I'll throw in there is called a BATNA, which stands for the Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement. And it's something I'm so in awe that more people don't think about because you can always walk away, but in order to walk away, you have to know what you're walking away from and into.

I used to do family law and a lot of people think, “I'll have to stay with this person because if I'm not with this person then I'm with no one.” Well, you're not with no one. You're with yourself and you're not with this person who you think sucks.

You get to be free. You get to explore other options. That's your best alternative. Especially when we're talking about negotiating marriage trusts, as we've actually had clients walk away from that because they said, “Oh my God, I'm never going to get to a point in this marriage contract where I'm actually happy.”

Then you maybe have to reconsider if you even want to be in the marriage, but I digress. But that idea can also be applied to anything you negotiate as a freelancer. So, if you're in a negotiating contract, you have to know what the option is. 

Maybe you're in a situation with a client that is your dream client, and you're basically willing to do it for free. Then you know, whatever offer they give you, even though you're going to try to get the best that you can, but you're willing to willing to accept it for free, you might be willing to accept their final offer for half the monetary value you were hoping for because your alternative is not working with this brand that you love.

[As long as], if everything else is fine, right? Like you know they're not forcing you to do anything you don't want to do, etc.

Mohammed: Right.

Annie: But if you're negotiating with a brand that you don't have to work with. Okay. Then, if they're offering you something that is way less than what you were hoping for, then your alternative is to walk away with free time and with the energy to do something else that might be a better fit. 

A lot of people forget about that other part, that best alternative, and it's very important so that you can feel comfortable walking away and you can also feel very comfortable with accepting a negotiation if it comes to completion.

You [don’t have to be a lawyer to ask yourself], ‘would I and the other person walk away at the end of his conversation and write down the same thing on paper?’

Mohammed: And let's say the freelancer has gone ahead. They have done the negotiation. What other consideration should freelancers keep in mind, maybe even while they're negotiating?

Annie: I'll say there are two parts to this question. One part is that it's not always “I do X, you give me Y.’ You have to think about the monetary side. I know with Benji, you have to think about tax implications of things, right?

[Things like], “what can I write off as a business expense?” People always forget about tax implications and that can make a big difference. [They can] really make or break an agreement if you're talking about big numbers, but you also have to think about when you’re drafting the settlement agreement. You [don’t have to be a lawyer to ask yourself], “would I and the other person walk away at the end of his conversation and write down the same thing on paper?”

If so, what would that involve? Who's going to start? What's the timeline? What are the copyright implications of this? If you're producing something for someone, do they get ownership of it? Do you still get to use it? Is it a legally binding agreement or is it just something casual you guys worked out? Are you able to share it on social media? Are you able to profit from a relationship in the future? Are you going to be an ambassador for this company? Is this client going to work with you again? Just as much as nobody likes to think about the legalities of things you have to put on a bit of a lawyer hat and think from a contract perspective, from a settlement perspective: what else am I missing?

And, by the way, there are lawyers who can help you with this. I would say that that's one side of the coin. The other side, which I'm very passionate about because I think it's something we all need to pay more attention to is whether or not there are any unconscious biases at play. Any cultural differences, any national differences.

Because words have a lot of meaning and people see things differently depending on their background and the viewpoint that they have. For example, the word “compromise,” has both a positive and negative meaning in the English language, but in Persian, that's not the case.

Like compromise only has a weak [connotation], like you're giving things up. You're compromising your integrity —  [it’s not a] win, win situation. That has created some tension between nations in the past. Or, in Chinese culture —  and I've worked a lot with Asia as well because I'm originally from Taiwan —  the concept of trust has many definitions in terms of relational trust, in terms of trust in an agreement in a system, and sometimes you just won't know what you don't know.

But if a gut feeling is telling you something, if you're face to face with someone and their eye contact isn't what you intended. When you say something it's always worth it to, as politely, you can look into it to see if there was a misunderstanding.

And sometimes it's just, you know, two people from different countries negotiating something, but sometimes it can be pretty serious when you have a power imbalance. And, sometimes you can't help it, but you have to know if you want to walk away because something is unconscionable. 

[Whether] someone's not treating you well, someone is using you for your skills, or taking advantage of you being a freelancer and not having a company usually to fall on. You have to know when you either have to walk away or ask for help or find another way to manage the situation when you have a gut feeling that something's not right.

Unfortunately, some of the good lawyers who are also affordable, you have to find them through word of mouth, but I am happy to help.

Mohammed: I think you've touched on two things that I'd like to get a better understanding of. The first one being you mentioned there are plenty of lawyers. Typically when most of us Google “law firm” or “lawyer,” the big law firms of Toronto show up on the map. I'm curious to know how people can find maybe not-so-big law firm lawyers that are more accessible, especially to self-employed professionals.

Annie: Well, you can always reach out to me. I'll be happy to refer you to people I know and trust. It is unfortunate because there's a lot of marketing bucks that are spent on getting the bigger firms to the top.

Mohammed: Right.

Annie: The Law Society of Ontario does have a referral service. So, if you Google “Law Society of Ontario,” you can find that and they'll try their best to help you find someone.

But unfortunately, some of the good lawyers who are also affordable, you have to find them through word of mouth, but I am happy to help.

Mohammed: Perfect! And the second question, or a point that I wanted to understand a little bit more: Is there a time when it doesn't make sense to negotiate?

Annie: Definitely. I'm thinking about the photographer, in particular, in this instance. A lot of people do not value or cannot understand the difference in someone who's in their first year of university versus a photographer who is like Annie Leibovitz, for example. It's a photo, right?

So, people try to negotiate with photographers all the time. And I know that they struggle a lot with their pricing. I think if you have a certain confidence in your work and you have set prices for very specific categories of work, you should stick to them unless there's a special circumstance where someone's either giving you value or you're doing something charitable that would allow you to bring down your price.

That's one scenario. When you're doing something like photography, where your services are pretty fixed, it's different than when you're creating a project, like with food bloggers and the like, where no one knows what's going to come about the other side. It's more about if you think that the negotiation process compromises your integrity.

You do not have to, you can always politely say, “This is a fixed price. Just like, it would be for a mango in the supermarket or going to get your haircut.” It's a service you're providing. On the other hand, if you have a scenario, as I said, where you feel that the other party is taking advantage of you, whether it's obvious, [like they’re offering exposure] and they've tried to hide the fact that, that there is no monetary value in something, or when you, as I said, get a gut feeling that it's not right, you can always walk away.

There is no reason you should ever enter into something as a freelancer when there is nothing to be gained and so much to be lost.

Always be armed with more than enough information to the extent that you can find it because, as cheesy as it is, information is power.

Mohammed: Yes. I don't think I can add anything more. So, as we wrap up, I'd love to know. What advice do you have for Canadian freelancers?

Annie: Well, one note that covers a lot of what we talked about is the importance of knowing yourself, and maintaining professionalism. Dress the way you want people to see you. Negotiate in the way you want people to see you. Know your value, but be willing to be open-minded within that realm. Know what's out there, but don't listen to everything just because someone else is doing it and always be armed with more than enough information to the extent that you can find it because, as cheesy as it is, information is power. There's no such thing as failure when you're a freelancer, everything's a learning experience.

So, just take it with a grain of salt. If a negotiation fails, that's okay. It just means you have more time to explore your alternatives or it's a learning experience for you to do better.

Mohammed: Well, thank you so much, Annie. I'd love to know where people can find out more about you and your work online.

Annie: I am usually @chuonthisblog on Instagram and the website is chuonthis.ca. You can find everything there, including all the information about the other work that I have, but that's kind of the central hub. 

Mohammed: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for this opportunity to learn from you.

Annie: My gosh, thank you so much for having me. This was really fun.

Mohammed: I'm super excited for these greeting cards. Especially ones with the rice, they're essentially like a triangle?

Annie: Oh, the onigiri?

Mohammed: Onigiri, yes! Oh my God. Anything to do with onigiris or sushi.

Annie: Okay. I'll keep that in mind.

Mohammed: Just making a request here.

Annie: Okay. I have noted. I have noted your request and I will try my best to fulfill it.

Mohammed: Perfect!

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