Do you really need to speak Chinese to do business in China ?

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I was talking with a client yesterday who told that he met someone recently who has been sourcing out of China for over twenty years and this person said that it was not necessary to speak Chinese. I do not disagree with this. If you go to the Canton Fair you will see that 99.9% of overseas visitors speak little or no Chinese. And many of them do just fine, I am sure, doing business with vendors who speak English.

Still I think it is much harder to do business in China if you do not speak at least a modicum of Chinese. The advantages to speaking Chinese are many. Some are as follows:

1.) You will have more vendors to choose from. Many vendors are more comfortable speaking in Chinese than in English. It is no reflection on the vendor if they do not speak English well. It may simply be a geographical or personnel issue ( maybe the local foreign language college just does not have a lot of qualified candidates). If you insist on English you may very well be eliminating perfectly good vendors.

At the same time how well a vendor communicates in English should not be a deciding factor in choosing a vendor. I would rather deal with a person who replied promptly to my inquires in imperfect English (or Chinese) than one who replied in fluent English but who was not reliable. I know a lot of vendors like the latter. In short, a vendor’s attitude and capability in making your product should be the determining factor in whether you give them an order. English should be a consideration of course (after all communication is very important) but you don’t want it to be the main criterion for your vendor selection.

2.) Your vendors will respect you more if you show them they can speak Chinese (Even though they will always want to communicate with you in English it is important to show them that you can speak a little of their language as well). Make no mistake about it that business in China is changing and nowadays it is as much you soliciting their business as it is they soliciting your business.

3.) If you can achieve some proficiency in Chinese, you will understand a lot more about your production when you are at the factory. You will have the opportunity to talk with workers and managers about your product. When you use a translator these discussion are filtered so you only hear what you want to hear. And if CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) is important to you and your customers then when you are at the factory it is imperative that you talk directly to the workers. Of course it takes years to learn Mandarin well enough to be at this level. But if you plan to do business in China for many years, you might as well start now.

4.) You may hear things you are not meant to hear which will allow you to make important decisions. I once overheard a discussion between a vendor and a factory owner about a YKK zipper which the vendor had told me was genuine. The factory owner, however, told the vendor that she didn’t know if it was genuine. Well, right there I knew that I was being mislead and based on this I did not select this factory. Of course if I did not know Chinese then I might have ended up putting zippers on my bags that broke after a day’s use. In this instance my knowledge of Mandarin proved invaluable to my client.

5.) If you do travel to China and speak no Chinese, you may experience a lot of frustration and this may color your visit with your vendor. On the other hand if you can speak some Chinese you will probably be more relaxed overall, you will have more fun and this will inform your relationship with your vendor.

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