Product Sourcing: China: Communication and Culture

Importing from China isn’t as hard as it used to be, and it certainly isn’t as difficult as a lot of people believe. One of the reasons many business people source their products inside their own country or region is that they feel safe doing business with nationalities they know, especially where the language is the same.

If everything is going OK, why waste time or take a risk trying to start afresh with an unfamiliar, foreign supplier? Well, we’ve already talked about the benefits of buying from China – the bottom line!

But many people ask:

  • How can I deal with Chinese people, if they don’t speak English?
  • Are Chinese companies familiar with our way of doing business?
  • Can I trust a supplier in China?
  • Can Chinese suppliers really deal with me?
  • How do I know if Chinese factories and distributors are modern and professional enough to supply my needs?
  • Are Chinese suppliers actually allowed to export to my country?

These are all good questions, and if you’re asking these questions, it’s a good thing.

To be doubtful and careful is a wise approach whatever you are doing in the import/export business. If you’re already asking the type of questions above, the chances are that you are on the right path to researching a solid, reliable set of suppliers for your import business.

One company we’ve worked with often stated this,”we’ve seen a lot of customers who are first-time importers, for example starting an eBay shop, come directly into our website with a first purchase of several thousand US dollars, without asking us a single question before.”

A sure recipe for disaster is when people jump in quick and hope for the best. Just like in the US, China is fraught with unreliable or disorganized companies. A lot of Chinese companies can be found through the internet, but buyer beware, they often advertise things they can’t really deliver, or at least their service is not professionally set up to deal with export customers smoothly. There are a lot of newcomers to the import business who start with their first orders to that kind of company, and maybe get very disappointed or even lose money.

So the idea for you to be successful is that when you deal with any Chinese company, you need to establish a steady and communicative relationship. The Chinese style, in business and life in general, is to communicate frequently and build a relationship.

If you are communicating clearly with your suppliers, and in a positive way, you will run into fewer problems throughout all your business dealings.

But China is such a different place, and the language difference causes a barrier sometimes – how can you get this positive communication going? Remember this:

In China, human networks are more important than computer networks.”

When you communicate with Chinese people, you want to make sure that you make a good impression and build up a positive feeling in your business relationship. You cannot underestimate the importance of this to Chinese people.

Communications need to be polite and positive . Here are some of helpful tips on good business communication with Chinese people:

  • Always say please and thank you. Common courtesy and manners should always be used. Say “I’m sorry to bother you” and “Is this an OK time to call?” In emails say “I appreciate your help, [name]”.
  • Make your communications personal and use the other person’s name. If you are speaking on the phone, it’s OK to make some small talk. You can also use your name e.g. “it’s Steve here calling from San Diego, remember I am the one who ordered the cell phones last month?” to help the other person get to know and remember you. That will work in your favor because you will receive more personal service.
  • Don’t tell people directly that they are wrong. In Chinese culture if you say “you are wrong!” or even “that’s not true,” then you are creating a conflict, not harmony. If you must disagree, use diplomatic words. If you create a confrontation situation, the cultural response for Chinese people is to shut up and cease communicating, thus getting you nowhere.
  • If you ask a Chinese person a question to which they don’t know the answer, they will usually avoid saying “I don’t know”. So you may get a general answer, or three answers, or no answer at all. After some time, you will get a feeling for when people know what they are talking about and you will better learn how to get information from other people without hurting the feelings of the one who doesn’t know.
  • When it comes to money, you need to negotiate, not demand. Always find more and more variables which can be used as discussion points and possible concessions. “Refusing to budge” or “stonewalling” means you will make Chinese people think you are not interested in business and they will send you away empty handed.
  • Never raise your voice on the phone, and in an email don’t USE ANGRY CAPITALS! It just won’t get you anywhere.
  • Don’t be too concerned if your business contact has a non-business email address e.g. “…” or “…”. A lot of people use these webmail services because they are faster and more reliable than trying to access their company’s email.
  • If a Chinese person emails you an MS Word document with Chinese characters, you won’t be able to open it. Ask them to re-send it in PDF or RTF (i.e. rich text format) and it should be OK.
  • It’s always helpful to copy text from previous emails and include full references e.g. to invoice numbers, customer numbers, dates, etc. Your supplier may have many foreign clients handled by only a few people, and the more you can help them identify you, the more efficiently they’re going to be able to help you.

Instant Messaging… for Business

  • Chinese people love instant messaging like Skype, MSN, and (the Chinese network) QQ.
  • Don’t be surprised if Chinese people ask you for your instant messaging address because a lot of people here use these systems for day-to-day business communications.
  • No one in China uses AOL. QQ is generally only used by Chinese people, but a lot of Chinese people think its universal so might ask you for your number.

Calling China

  • The China country code is +86 (and Hong Kong is +852). In most countries this means you dial 0086 before the phone number.
  • Area codes begin with (0) e.g. Shenzhen is 0755, but you leave out the zero when you dial from abroad. For example, if a phone number is +86 0755 26451869, you would dial: 0086 755 26451869
  • China time is GMT +8 hours for the whole of China
  • Unlike here in the US, Chinese people almost never have voicemail or answering machines.
  • With many office phone networks, if a line is busy and you call it, you will still hear a ringing tone. So you will think no one is answering! Yes, it is a stupid system. Be patient and try again later.

English Language in China

So, how good are Chinese people at English? Well, Chinese kids now learn English for over 10 years in their schooling, but the standards of teaching for the current generation of business people were not so great. If you’ve found a good supplier, you don’t want to give up just because your contact person’s English isn’t perfect.

Here are some tips on how not to get frustrated:

  • When you are speaking, remember to speak clearly andslowly. That can make a big difference.
  • Give the other person time to write down information.
  • For Chinese people it’s often difficult to use the right words to get a polite tone. For example on the phone someone may tell you “Wait!” … which sounds rude, right? But they mean “Please hang on a moment” … they’re not trying to be rude!
  • In Chinese languages, the word for “he” and “she” is the same. So if your Chinese contact refers to your female colleagues as “he” please don’t be too surprised – they do know she’s a woman!
  • In Chinese there are no verb forms for tenses. That is, in English we say “I am going”, “I went”, “I will go” etc, but in Chinese you just say “I today go”, “I yesterday go”, “I tomorrow go” etc. So if your Chinese contact is telling you something, and you are not sure if it already happened, or is going to happen in the future, please ask!!
  • As with all communications, it can’t hurt to ask questions, repeat your understanding to clarify agreements, and confirm things in writing.

“Making contact with Chinese suppliers – starting out on the right foot”

A lot of people who ask questions about importing from China mentioned this problem:

“I’ve contacted loads of Chinese suppliers… but they never get back to me. How do I get a response from them?”

First of all, you need to make sure you’ve allowed enough time for them to get back to you. If you’ve emailed and a week has gone past, try faxing or phoning. Or try emailing again, copying your original enquiry. However, the main reason people don’t get the response they want is that they don’t begin the communications in the right way.

This is the wrong way to write to a Chinese supplier:

“yo i am intrested to import from yall — plz gimme the full price list and btw do you have iPods??? and wot about free samplez?!?”

thanx bye

OK, maybe a bit exaggerated example, but can you see how in their pile of daily emails, the Chinese supplier might not take this kind of email seriously? Let’s look at some other failed first enquiries:

To whom it may concern, Our company is one of the top businesses listed on the Brazilian stock exchange. With over $3 billion in assets and 50 years’ history importing from all over the world, our customers love us because…
[… blah blah blah] [ + 5 pages of company information + brochure attachments] We look forward to your reply.

Yours faithfully,
Mr Boss Big Shot
CEO, President, Egos-R-Us plc


That email is going to get junked, not because it lacks credibility but because:

  1. It is boring
  2. It is too long for an average Chinese person to read
  3. It doesn’t actually ask a question, so how can we reply?

Can you guess why this next person never got an answer?


I’ve seen your company clothing and shoes catalogue and I think you people at ChinaTextile can help me.

I need to find a supplier for car tires and also for baby toys. I know both of these are made in China, and you guys are in China, so you must be able to help me right?


In case you think that’s exaggerated, one of our contacts says they have answered emails from people asking to supply them with steel nails, rice, insurance, knives, and sex toys.

And how about this next one – have you ever perhaps sent an email a little like this?

Dear Sir,

I have seen your website with special gadgets and I need you to supply me with a product according to the following specifications.

The product needs to be as follows:

– GPS locator
– Lightweight but made of metal
– Have solar power
– Have a full color screen which can be hit with a hammer and won’t break
– Optionally have a full waterproof body
– Can be mounted on any normal sniper rifle

Please get back to me immediately with a proforma invoice quoting prices for 50,000 pcs, 100,000 pcs, and 1 million pcs and full information about how fast you can ship this to me CIF Antarctica.

Best regards,
Mr Leet Importer

What are the problems here?

  1. Too demanding
  2. Not asking about an actual product
  3. Immediately demanding prices for a non-specific quote
  4. Asking about huge quantity orders right from the start

The China supplier may not even bother replying to your emails if there isn’t a straightforward quick answer they can give you!

How to Write a Good First Enquiry Email

OK, enough criticism for now! Here is some positive advice about your first enquiry email:

  • Write a descriptive subject line .
    Bad: “Enquiry”
    Good: “Price Enquiry – TTC-1459 Accumulator – James Brent, UK Electricals Inc”
  • Don’t write “URGENT” , “IMPORTANT”, or “reply asap” in the subject line because everyone thinks their own emails are the most important and for the person receiving it, it’s just annoying.
  • Write a full, mainly formal email beginning “Dear …” (to a person’s name if you know it) and an ending “Best regards” with a footer including your contact details.
  • Use a Spell Checker, and write with normal capitalization.
  • Tell them where you found out about their company, and state their company name so your email doesn’t look like a bulk mailing.
  • BRIEFLY introduce your company and what your position is.
  • Use the email to establish communication instead of demanding information.
  • If you ask about products, refer to actual products and not general categories, and don’t talk about price quotations in the first email. Even if you are just price comparing, start the enquiry email conversation with a different question.
  • Don’t demand references such as company certificates from the beginning.
  • Don’t ask them a huge list of complex questions about taxes, shipping, warranties, terms and conditions etc. There is time for that later.

You can apply these same ideas to phone calls – introduce yourself, ask simple questions that can be answered, and focus on building a communication, not on demanding details.

Here is the type of good email Chinese suppliers would happily reply to – you can change the details and use it as a template for your own sourcing enquiries:

[subject:] Enquiry regarding earphones from Roger Peres, California Sounds Ltd.

Dear Ms Li,

I found the details of your company “ChinaSonic” in the trade magazine “Earphone Sources”.

My company is California Sounds Ltd, based in San Diego, California, and my position is Purchasing Manager.

I am interested in finding new high quality earphones and headphones, and I think your company looks like an excellent possible supplier.

Please could you let me know if you can export earphone products to California? If so, please can you send me a catalogue of your products or a price list?

I have seen a picture of your bud-type earphones, model [E-40b] and products similar to these would be interesting to us.

I will be very interested to speak with you more about buying from ChinaSonic. If you would like to telephone me at the number below, or email me, I will be glad to talk with you.

I look forward to your reply.

Best regards,
Roger Peres
Purchasing Manager,
California Sounds Ltd
+01 1234567890

What You Should Expect

You have to be realistic about how much information your supplier can give you and how excellent their customer service is going to be.

Remember, you’re not dealing with a retail shop – but most likely a factory or a wholesaler, so they probably haven’t got the staff or the expertise to deal with “live” customer service.

  • Don’t expect toll-free helplines!
  • Don’t expect voicemail.
  • Don’t expect the people to remember who you are if you just phone up and say “it’s Bob here” or email without signing your name and company footer.
  • Don’t expect instant answers to your emails.
  • Don’t expect the Chinese supplier to know much about the import taxes or licenses for your country. After all, do you know the Chinese laws and tariffs for a Chinese person importing from your country? Didn’t think so!
  • Don’t expect a distributor or wholesaler to know all the details about their products. They will be able to find out, but the “English speaking office assistant” on the phone very likely isn’t a technician, so go easy on them.
  • If the company has already sent you a product specification or price list, don’t expect them to be able to provide lots more photos, manuals, or technical specifications. The quickest way for you would probably be to buy a sample.
  • If you get a price list early on, these prices might change later (higher).
  • If you get prices quoted and you are a brand new customer, don’t expect to be able to bargain these down right away, especially if you are only buying a smaller quantity.

If you’re a new buyer you may sometimes feel that you’re not getting full attention from your supplier. Don’t worry, Chinese business people take some time to get to know people.

Chinese customer service is not bad at all, but you can’t expect to be in the VIP client circle straight away. As you become better known to your contact people and your relationship as a buyer has more time and trust, you will find that your customer service from the Chinese supplier will improve.

A long-term relationship with a supplier is a very valuable thing to have, because you will get better prices, and the latest and best products, before everyone else. It is worth investing the time and patience.


“Be cautious, but don’t seem suspicious;
Make enquiries, not demands“.

If you follow this attitude, you will be much more successful in the long term in your dealings with Chinese businesspeople, because you will create a harmonious business relationship.

One of the things you will notice if you visit China or deal with Chinese people a lot is that they are very proud of their history and culture! The Chinese way of thinking about everything in life is really very different to our way.

Like it or not, Chinese people tend to believe their way of communicating and doing business is the “normal, correct” way, and your way is the foreign way!

Don’t expect Chinese business contacts to change their style and adapt to your way of thinking – at least not too much too fast.

Try to be understanding if you find you can’t seem to communicate in the way you expected at first! If you can work with Chinese people in a patient, polite way, the rewards will come back to you in the long term!