So You’ve Got Issues with Your Chinese Suppliers.  What Now?

Chinese are much less direct in their communication than Westerners. In business dealings, you must watch for indirect signals and the context of the situation.

By ·

You’ve probably been sourcing or manufacturing in China for a while.  At first, product quality was great, but little by little product quality has deteriorated.  Your engineers have been to China, but fear of offending the Chinese has prohibited them from giving direct feedback. 

Now you are considering taking your production elsewhere or shutting down the plant.  But first, you want to give the Chinese one more opportunity to get product quality back on track.  So how do you tell them without offending them and completely ruining the relationship?

Westerners have open, frank discussions and freely express opinions.  We provide feedback and interpretation and we make demands on our suppliers.  But this is not a successful approach when doing business in China.  In fact, such tactics would be uncomfortable for the Chinese and considered insulting. 

Chinese are much less direct in their communication than Westerners.  In business dealings, you must watch for indirect signals and the context of the situation.  If there are production problems or quality problems, they will be described in generalities.

You must ask questions to draw them out.  You need to be very careful not to sound accusatory and to reassure the people you are dealing with, that you are just trying to fix the problem because that’s what the US market demands. Try an open-ended approach, referring to external factors and make statements such as “Management at my company will only allow shipments that meet 1% defect rate.”  Or “Can you describe the quality inspection process?”  Try to discover the root cause of the problem and then gently make suggestions for corrections.

China is high context culture, meaning that what’s said must be interpreted based on surroundings or the issue context.  High context refers to societies or groups where people have close connections over a long period of time. Many aspects of cultural behavior are not made explicit because members know what to do and what to think from years of interaction with each other. Your family is an example of a high context environment.  Here are some other examples:

Low context Western cultures:

• Take words at face value
• Focus on roles, not status
• Ask questions to clarify problems
High context Chinese culture:
• Body language is extremely important
• Status is extremely important
• Saving face is necessary
• Building Guanxi is more important than results
• Inject famous quotes and proverbs and you are expected to interpret what is being said
• Will never say no to a suggestion or a question.  Chinese will say that further study is required.
• Will introduce ambiguity

Be very mindful of how your direct American approach might cost the loss of face to your Chinese counterpart. An overly direct approach could cause a deterioration of the business relationship between your companies.  Take time to explain the business situation and why quality is so important.  Then ask indirect questions until the discussion opens up and you can provide ways to improve.


About the Author

Patrick Burnson, Executive Editor
Patrick Burnson is executive editor for Logistics Management and Supply Chain Management Review magazines and web sites. Patrick is a widely-published writer and editor who has spent most of his career covering international trade, global logistics, and supply chain management. He lives and works in San Francisco, providing readers with a Pacific Rim perspective on industry trends and forecasts. You can reach him directly at [email protected]

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