How communication gets distorted in Chinese factories

Supplier ManagementHave you ever wondered why one of your suppliers promised you that something would get done, and then it never got done?

I bet every experienced importer has dozens of similar stories. But, most of the time, it is due to lack of organization rather than lack of honesty.

It usually follows this sequence:

  • A top manager is made aware of a big mistake, and decides to correct it.
  • The middle managers look for a quick-and-dirty way of solving (or hiding) the problem.
  • The customer notices it, and gets very upset. The supplier is unable to present any explanation. Conclusion: “they can’t be trusted”.

The reason is that middle managers have other problems to deal with, and they don’t understand the whole context — how important the customer is, how bad the mistake was, how late the order already is…

They know that putting out fires and changing priorities creates a lot of confusion, which decreases productivity — and that’s exactly what top management keeps repeating to them. So they think they act in their company’s interest. After all, taking shortcuts allows them to save costs — again, their boss keeps telling them this is priority No. 1.


The root cause is the lack of training of managers and the lack of procedures. By the way, large manufacturers (say, above 2,000 workers) are better organized and tend to avoid this problem.

The most dangerous time is when the boss is not present. Two weeks ago, an importer told me about a factory owner who had invested in massage parlors, who didn’t give enough time to the factory, and who was reluctant to hire someone to replace the production manager who had left him. No need to mention, this manufacturer’s reliability was going downhill at a fast pace.

Is it only manufacturers?

I have also seen this phenomenon at work in trading companies. I remember a bad case, 5 years ago, where an entire production batch was unacceptable. The boss of the trading company came from Hong Kong. He decided to re-produce (mostly at his expense, since he was buying the materials).

But his staff talked with the production workshop owner and decided to attempt a repair… And we rejected the products again, for the exact same reasons. The improvement was very, very minimal. The client was furious.


If you count on a supplier to do something, and you can’t afford to be disappointed, there are basically two solutions:

  • Get status reports from the supplier, and send someone to check progress from time to time;
  • Station an inspector on site for monitoring what is going on.


Related article: Supervising production in china


What do you think?


  1. Brad Pritts says

    Many years ago my employer used a training film titled “Prescription for Complaints”, which provided guidance on how to effectively respond to customer complaints (Listen, Sympathize, Ask Questions, Agree on A course of action, and follow up).   By the way, it’s still in print, and while dated is a great tool.  It stars John Cleese and the Monty Python team, and uses their odd British humor to make the lessons memorable. 

    After some years of operating in China I have found patterns in the Chinese methods for handling customer complaints.  While much of this has been true in retail sales/ service, some manufacturers use the same methods.   It isn’t necessary to follow all the steps; just keep working down the list until the upset customer goes away. 

    1)   Deny that there is a problem.   Even if the damage is visible on goods right there, 
    pretend that it doesn’t exist.  Or state that they’re all that way and always have been. 

    2)   Blame the customer.  “You must have damaged it.”    

    3)   Stall.   Attend to another customer, look for busywork on your desk, otherwise ignore
    the customer.    Maybe they’ll leave on their own!  (Especially effective at hotel front desks at checkout time!) 

    5)   Place blame on someone else, and try to get the customer to go see that other person. 

    6)   Agree to take care of the problem, take possession of the item/ paperwork/ whatever,
    and tell the customer to come back later… after your shift is done!

    To be fair, after identifying this pattern in China I have realized that many leading (?)
    US companies use a similar step to abuse their customers.   So perhaps this is a global