Why does everything have to be so hard when dealing with Chinese suppliers? You send emails, and barely even get a reply.
You put together the best mood board ever, communicating the ‘feeling’ you want for your spring collection – and your supplier don’t even bother to comment on it.
The communication between overseas buyers, especially those in the West, and Chinese suppliers, is at best dysfunctional. Most often, it’s a complete disaster, that results in severe quality issues and huge losses for both sides.
In this article, I share my 5 best tips for effectively communicating with your supplier, so that you can avoid misunderstandings and delays.
1. Be overly clear and concise in your communication
In manufacturing, one must think, and communicate, as an engineer. However, Alibaba.com and Globalsources.com have essentially opened up contract manufacturing to every Entrepreneur on the planet.
As a result, many business owners without manufacturing or product development background venture into a field they have no experience in.
I see this all the time, with vague and open ended product specifications. Or worse, ‘inspirational documents’ that will ‘communicate a vision’ to the supplier.
Manufacturers don’t want or need your ‘vision’ or ‘inspiration’. They assemble your product for a quick profit and that’s it.
They want spec sheets, design drawings, label files and bill of materials. That’s the universal language of manufacturing.
In addition, most Chinese engineers and sales reps are far from fluent English speakers.
Thus, keep your communication as clear and concise as possible. Use bullet points and short, standardized documents.
2. Don’t expect the supplier to drive the process forward. Always take on the role as the project manager.
Most suppliers don’t standardize their procedures. At best, they may have a Purchase order template, and set payment terms – but that’s it.
The nature of OEM manufacturing is very buyer driven. Manufacturers are accustomed to work with experience buyers that all have their own procedures, agreement templates and quality requirements.
Implementing their own would only annoy their existing customers.
And then the odd startup comes along, expecting the supplier to provide a laid out roadmap, with contract templates and nice brochures.
It doesn’t work like that.
As a buyer, big or small, it’s up to you manage the process. This means that you must give the supplier explicit orders on everything from what and how to send a quotation file, to drafting a sales contract and executing the quality control.
You are the Project manager, from start to finish, and the needle will not move an inch without you pushing it forward on a day to day basis.
3. Expect your supplier to put up a show of fierce resistance to your demands
As you do manage the process, you will face resistance from your supplier.
You will be told that ‘you don’t need a product certificate because none of their other European buyers ever requested that’, and that they refuse to sign a sales contract ‘because that is simply not how it’s done in China’.
Or, that you don’t need to do a quality control or lab test.
Chinese suppliers are sharks. They can smell the blood of weak and inexperienced buyers from miles away – and they don’t think twice about taking them for a ride.
If anything, they only have contempt for the suckers who give in to their demands.
And to be honest, I think they have a point.
Too many times, I see buyers that are so scared of offending a supplier they have never even done business with. Perhaps due to political correctness, they fail to understand that their supplier is simply not on their side.
Chinese suppliers operate in a highly competitive environment, used to being bossed around by big buyers, competitors and local subcontractors.
They are battle hardened, and therefore you must act accordingly.
My best advice is to deflect their attempts to derail your processes, by referring to ‘company policy’ or instructions from higher up. Simply a directive that is out of your control… even if you’re a one man startup working from a student dorm.
They wouldn’t know anyway.
The Chinese understand the importance of hierarchy, so it’s an argument that reasons well.
4. Don’t expect to get your emails replied. Use Wechat and phone calls for day to day communication.
Sometimes it seems as if everything is hard when it comes to dealing with Chinese suppliers – even getting your emails replied.
There are two reasons for this.
First, Chinese sales reps don’t have the same email habits as their, often eCommerce focused, customers. They spend time meeting buyers face to face, attend trade fairs and keep an eye on production.
When they do have an hour or two left at the end of the day to reply to emails, they give priority to their regular customers – not the daily flood of average leads they get on Alibaba.
Second, emails from abroad to Chinese mail servers have a high delivery failure rate. Hence, half of your emails may not even hit your suppliers inbox.
I don’t know the exact rate, but it’s high.
Forget about an ‘email only’ approach. You don’t get their attention, and it may not even get delivered.
Instead, you should use a brilliant chat app called Wechat, which is used by essentially everyone in China.
By using Wechat, you have direct access to your supplier, any time of the day. You can also make calls through the app.
Whenever you need to send large files, you can use WeTransfer (not affiliated with Wechat, despite the similarity of the name) or other file transfer services.
At most, you can use email to request a status update, but that’s about it.
5. Don’t get too upset by delays and ‘changing conditions’
Manufacturing is complicated, anywhere on the planet. It’s not an exact science that can be predicted.
There are always delays, and raw material prices change constantly.
Then China is still a developing country. Things are simply less predictable, compared to developed countries.
As a buyer, you need to be patient and tolerate delays, and sometimes even price increases.
Time and time again, I see buyers settings unrealistic deadlines, target prices and quality requirements.
When they can’t be met, they send long, angry, emails to their suppliers and service providers – telling them how disappointed they are, and that they are taking their business elsewhere next time.
Of course, there are limits to what you should accept. But at the same time, you must understand the market conditions, and be somewhat flexible.
Besides, your supplier won’t read those angry emails anyway, so you might just save yourself the trouble.
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