What are the different mediums importers might use to communicate with their Chinese suppliers?
Select the wrong one and you’ll find it more difficult to control your project, manage your suppliers, and get the outcomes that you expect…so even if, WeChat instant messages seem like an easy way to communicate, for example, after reading this you may think again before you fire off your next message there.
It may seem harmless to communicate in whatever way seems easiest, but it can lead to trouble down the road…let’s look at the different mediums you might use and when they are or are not a good option:
Listen to the post here:
Common issues that cause communication difficulties
English language skills must be considered when selecting a supplier. If they can’t speak with you, or the one person with good English leaves, what then?
Timing expectations may need to be tempered. Expecting a response from Chinese suppliers during the same work day might be unrealistic, especially with the time zone difference. Also, the suppliers may not answer quickly unless the inquiry is very urgent which could be surprising. This could drive communication onto instant messaging via WeChat which is also problematic in its own ways.
Speaking in the local vernacular, such as using sports expressions like ‘ballpark figure,’ might also fall on deaf ears because it simply isn’t understood. (01:59)
WeChat is China’s ‘super app.’ Everyone has it and uses it for shopping, paying bills, buying tickets, selling online, communicating via text and voice messages, video calls, banking, etc. Because it’s such a personal thing, by having business communication there (easy as it may be), you’re mixing your business with all of their other activities and discussions with friends and family and it can become indistinguishable. Also, if someone stops working for your supplier but they keep communicating with you, would you even know? This could lead to your orders being diverted to, say, their new trading company (a quality and compliance nightmare as your product is probably not manufactured with what and by whom you expect).
Sofeast has a rule where WeChat is more or less banned for business communication. If a supplier does confirm something there, we ask them to reconfirm it by email, otherwise, it may become impossible to trace important matters.
Messages sent here may not be saved and could be hard to find later on to check an important point. At least, they’ll be jumbled up with a lot of personal messages coming in. Also, WeChat is not secure. Anything said there could be accessed by the government. This may be an issue for many Western businesses. (06:43)
Email can be saved and archived and is fairly easy to search for specific messages. It’s a good option for business communication and certainly better than WeChat, but it can become messy over time.
It’s possible to add structure to communication, such as giving a clear list of questions and requesting that each is answered in turn in the follow-up message, rather than adding everything as a paragraph. If the former, something will be missed as the supplier follows your lead by using a freestyle structure the same as you did.
It can be a slow way to communicate if a chain of emails takes everyone a day to receive each response (so structuring email becomes all the more necessary). (12:46)
Project Management Software
This is one step above email and software like Trello, Asana, and Basecamp are commonly used. Chinese suppliers don’t use it often and they can be slow to use in China, especially down and uploads. But they provide benefits like being able to assign to-do’s and expected dates and everything is stored in categories and can be searched fairly easily.
Some importers schedule a weekly video meeting with key suppliers and they go through the to-do’s in the PM software and discuss progress and get feedback task by task. This really helps keep suppliers accountable and they know you will push them for answers. (16:11)
DingTalk is a paid Chinese business app that is liked and easily adopted by Chinese staff as it is a familiar style. It allows instant messaging, but also to-do’s and assigned parties and dates straight to their phone (which is the main source of attention in China), so it is good for managing tasks. It is far more secure than WeChat and not expensive.
It is probably easier for Western customers to adopt this than to expect Chinese suppliers to use Western PM software. (19:31)
You can create a master file, hosted in the cloud, that can be accessed by you and the supplier. It will contain the information they need such as CMF info on drawings, user manual, etc, and also your expectations and what you do not like or want. During new product development and production you may get samples with defects and photos of these can be added and you can comment that you don’t like or accept this.
By having a living document like this nothing can be forgotten like in WeChat messages or emails and it can be referred back to for current information. It’s possible to request feedback and written confirmations of your new changes.
Inspection results and engineering change requests can also be added and the supplier can refer to these in future productions and the facts of what happened are there for all to see later on if issues persist or there are problems with materials or components that were supposed to have been changed (so perhaps your supplier didn’t take the action needed and you need to make them accountable). (23:09)
Formal legally-enforceable agreements
These agreements clearly outline how you will work together, expectations, and who is responsible for what. There will be legal penalties in China for breaking the agreement.
If a buyer does not work in a structured manner and forgets to get important points confirmed in writing, problems can occur, such as a supplier assuming that since they did sourcing for free, for example, the BOM belongs to them and they will not share it. If you don’t have access to your BOM, you have little control over your project and it’s basically the supplier’s product, but if the expectation that you will own the BOM wasn’t made clear from the start, can we blame the Chinese supplier for wanting to own work that they did ‘for free?’
Clearly, the solution is to sign clear product development and/or manufacturing agreements before starting any work together that will cover the BOM, ownership of tooling, what happens if there are X% of defects in a batch, etc. If you wait until there is a problem to discuss agreements, it’s too late, because you don’t have much or any leverage over them. (30:00)
The need for working templates
You may need to work with parties who have the expertise you need in order to create your deliverables in clear working templates.
For example, Chinese business lawyers to create legal agreements. An engineering firm to provide 2D drawings with CTQ measurements etc. A supply chain management company that makes sure that the BOM is well-arranged on a clear template. Test results in a clear template added by quality and reliability engineers. (33:41)
P.S. Related content to this topic…
You’ll get a lot more new product launch tips and assistance from the blog posts, guides, and podcast episodes!
- Communication with Chinese Suppliers: Banging Your Head Against the Wall?
- DIY Sourcing From China Part 5: Building Rapport [Podcast]
- 7 Signs That Your Chinese Factory Is Poorly Managed [Infographic]
- Quality Control Plan: Defining Expectations Before Production
- Learn how to create a valid manufacturing contract in China, with a focus on protecting product IP
- Sofeast can help check that you’re ready to go into production with an NPI deliverables review