The issues communication problems with Chinese suppliers cause, and their solutions

What are some of the most common communication problems with Chinese suppliers that cause problems for our clients when they come to us for help?

Communication issues in China and the problems they cause for importers

We tend to find that these issues keep repeating themselves when we speak with clients.

If you look at the root cause, most are actually related to cultural differences between China and the West. So, the question is, if you encounter any of these communication problems with Chinese suppliers, how do you overcome the issues that they cause with your project?

Let’s look at some examples:

1. “My supplier doesn’t respond to my emails quickly or even at all sometimes”

Chinese people seldom give you a direct “NO” or “CAN’T” reply as they are concerned that this will cause them to lose face (so-called “mianzi” or 面子) due to appearing incompetent.
Therefore, they’ll
 likely ignore your e-mails or not inform you directly straight away if they don’t have good news for you. The same thing applies to when your order is being delayed or suffering from other issues.

Also, consider that your contact at the supplier’s factory may not be a manufacturing expert who must ask other staff for clarification before even being able to answer. Can you include a contact who is involved with the production? If this is possible, this will help to cut down on the back-and-forth.

Regardless of who you speak with via email, we find that a quick local call usually helps to clarify the issues that weren’t being solved by a long ‘back-and-forth’ with dozens of e-mails between yourself and the supplier.

If you send a particularly important email, follow it up with a call to assure that it doesn’t go unnoticed and is understood.


2. “My supplier promised that they understood my product’s requirements, but they haven’t delivered what I was expecting”

One of the most critical communication communication problems with Chinese suppliers leading to poor manufacturing results problems with Chinese suppliers where, in fact, they probably didn’t fully understand your needs after all.

In order to avoid this, you should strive to give your supplier the best possible chance of understanding your requirements to the letter from the very start of the project.

Be clear and precise with your supplier about your expectations – you are dealing with engineers and manufacturers so they do not need a ‘story,’ they require technical facts.
They probably don’t speak good English, so help them by:

  • Being concise
  • Using the most straightforward language
  • Giving them bullet lists
  • Using standardized documents and respond by email, not Wechat, Skype, etc (avoids them needing to find different types of documents in different places which could cause mistakes)

All of these techniques will help supplier comprehension.

Be aware that if you ask your supplier whether he has questions about your order, most likely it will be followed by silence. This is because asking questions is not a good self-image in Chinese society. This may also be a “face issue” concern (see point 1 above).

Provide tangible details

Before you place an order, make sure that they are provided with your product design drawings, specification sheets, label files, your BoM (bill of materials), and your QC checklist (if needed) and then test your supplier’s understanding of every single detail about the product they will produce rather than asking them if they have questions.

In order to check comprehension, ask them to explain everything back to you in detail to see that they have grasped all of the important details.

Also bear in mind that, although they may be able to manufacture your product, they may never have physically seen or used such an item before (not all of the products that we take for granted in the West are readily available or even used in China, therefore your supplier may literally have no idea what the product is). If this is the case, somehow arrange to demonstrate it to them so they can see its size, its usage, and other details such as color, mechanical operation, and finish.


3. “My supplier is dodging my questions about my order’s progress”

chinese supplier not answering questions about order progress

Chinese suppliers often avoid bad news, as explained in point 1, in order to appear more competent. You need to be very clear with them from the start that, bad news or not, you would appreciate being informed on all developments regarding your project as soon as they occur, which, in this case, is that progress is slower than expected.

One more thing here lies in the fact that the supplier knows that you are a foreigner from far away, so he doesn’t feel the pressure that he will if you were on spot constantly checking on him.

Dealing with this means being able to apply the pressure so the supplier takes your concerns more seriously and treats your project as a priority. But if you aren’t in China what can you do?

You have some options:

  • Visit the factory in person

    Your presence will be taken more seriously than an occasional phone call, and you will be able to probe more deeply into your supplier’s operation in person. For instance, you may get started with these 24 questions for suppliers.

  • Be tougher

    You’ve heard the saying: “Give an inch, take a mile.” This is true with many Chinese suppliers. They will quote you a ‘low’ or affordable price to get your business and then will start to cut corners in order to make back the margin they’re losing (quality fade). If they feel that you’re a soft touch, this will serve to encourage them. So be firmer in your communications, while still being polite.

  • Perform on-site factory audits, supplier management, and product inspections

    Make the supplier accountable for the progress of your project and cost, quality, and time. Use a local quality assurance firm like Sofeast to get into their facility (to minimize long and costly flights) to audit the supplier, manage the project itself, or perform on-site inspections throughout the production process to assure that quality is up to standard. This will serve to keep the pressure on them, and also prevent the kind of ‘quality fade’ discussed before.


4. “My supplier refuses to sign a contract / perform laboratory testing / provide certifications / etc”

Things will not be the same in China as in your country, and the supplier’s perception of the importance of, say, quality inspections on your products, are probably far removed from your own.

While signing a contract may seem to be common sense for you, your supplier may resist as ‘this is not normal practice for them,’ or so they say.

In this case, don’t cave into them, but be firm as mentioned earlier. The supplier needs to understand that you can’t and won’t compromise on your fundamental needs. They may also be trying to buy themselves ‘wiggle-room’ for corner-cutting later on, so of course, keeping things relatively loose and avoiding the gaze of auditors, inspectors, etc will be of benefit to them in that case.


What do you think of these communication problems with Chinese suppliers? Are they familiar? Do you have any examples to add that we haven’t mentioned here? Please let us know.


Additional reading >> Want even more help with Chinese suppliers? Read this post which has 36 tips to communicate more effectively with them!


Get help to manage your Chinese suppliers

Do you have a person on the ground in China who understands the cultural issues and keeps their finger on the pulse in the same time zone so that you are updated straight away of any possible issues, shifts, or modifications?

Sofeast helps you with supplier and project management in China, Vietnam, and other key manufacturing countries in Asia.

Speak with us. We’ll listen to you and suggest how we may be able to help. If you’d like a quotation for any of our solutions, we’ll also gladly provide one.

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