5 assumptions NOT to make when you do business in China

There was an interview in the China Daily recently with the President of the American Chamber of commerce in China, Ken Jarrett. Jarrett was discussing the need for American companies that sell into China to adapt their product to local tastes. In Jarrett’s words “My advice for forthcoming US companies is to be aware of what is different about consumers here. You can’t assume that the product you have in the US has the same attraction here, so you need to adjust it,” There is a lot of wisdom in this statement and it should be applicable to companies that source in China as well. In other words, when you source in China you have to respect Chinese business customs and you need to be careful not to make the same assumptions about behavior that you make in your own country. Here are five assumptions that I have seen US companies make in China that just lead to problems.

  1. My production will be every bit as good as my sample. Not so. A sample should simply be regarded as an example of the vendor’s capabilities and nothing more.  If the vendor can do a sample to your liking that is big step forward. But there is a long way to go to ensure that your entire production looks like that sample.
  2. My vendor will implement my design changes. Although a vendor may tell you they will make the changes you suggest, they may not if these changes involve too much cost. It is very important to try to maintain a dialogue with your vendor about the cost of the project and reassure them if they see added costs.
  3. My vendor will inspect my order. Vendors put very little into inspections. They can sometimes be remarkably short-sighted in terms of making sure they deliver a good product to their customer.  Often, they want to ship the product ASAP and get paid, not caring if a subsequent order will materialize or not. The burden is on the buyer to inspect their own product, whether they do that on their own or through a third party inspection firm in China.
  4. My order will ship according to the date on the PO.  ALWAYS be prepared for the likelihood that your order will ship late.
  5. My vendor will do what they have promised.  A promise in China sometimes means very little. When a vendor promises you something don’t believe it. Instead keep talking about it and make sure they do it.

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Ordering in small QTYs when you are starting a business

I have a client who is starting a new line of private label products and he wants to order in small QTYs from China, the goal being to see which products do well and which products do not  before he pours a lot of investment into anything. These are low value added products which retail at under $ 20.00. He sent me a list of about 10 products and the QTYs he wants to get from China are from 250-500 pcs per item. I like my customer’s common sense here, for I think in any China sourcing project it is good to start small, no matter what your projections or gut feeling may say. At the same time, often what gets a vendor’s interest is large order QTYs so an order of 250 pcs may have few takers. And if someone did take the order, it would not be a priority. The one exception would be if my client had a longstanding relationship with one factory. In this case the factory would willingly take the order because they would view it in terms of the larger relationship. Getting factories with whom you have done business over the years to take small orders is rarely a problem. But my client is starting out so he really does not have these kinds of relationships with factories in China right now.

For this reason, I have advised him that it is best to work through a trading company with this order, and one that specializes in the type of product he wants to import. In addition to run-of-the-mill trading companies that run the gamut in terms of what products they sell, you will find trading companies in China that are dedicated to one product category only e.g. auto parts, to stationary items, to toys, to baby products etc. I worked through a trading company once that specialized in silk flowers and automotive parts. It is an odd pairing but it worked for me because I was sourcing silk butterflies for a company in California. Had I been sourcing refrigerator magnets it probably would not have worked. So if you are looking for a trading company, it is good to remember this. Because the last thing you want to do is unknowingly give an order to a trading company that really has no expertise in the product you are interested in. You have no way of knowing this unless you do your research.

At the same time working through a trading company means that my client will have to lower his product standards considerably. Because trading companies are not the primary manufacturer and cannot be expected to attach importance to any but the most basic quality requirements of the customer one has to lower their standards accordingly. So when my client is already voicing about how he can tweak this or that on a product or how he can improve quality, I told him, forget about that. You are just ordering 250 pcs of something with minimal value. Right now just see if you can get these products out of China with your own label at a cost that works for you. Once you do that you can gauge the interest in the market. Even if a customer buys something and returns it for quality issues, my client will have seen that there is interest in the product, which I think is his goal now. When he knows which products garner interest and which do not he can then start thinking about bigger QTYs and approaching factories directly with orders that will get their interest. And then he can spend more time thinking about product quality and design.

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When in China, speak Chinese

Having worked over the years for several American companies that do business in China, I have had numerous occasions to visit China with colleagues or to host them when I was living and working in Shanghai. One thing I have noticed few American business people actually try to learn some Chinese before they visit China. I can recall any number of colleagues who could not even say 你好 (ni hao) or hello when they landed in China.

My personal opinion is that it is not wise policy to go to China without a handful of Chinese words and expressions and at least skeletal knowledge of Chinese history and culture. The Chinese are very proud of their culture and many of them resent the fact that Western Culture, in particular American culture, is the dominant global culture. By speaking only English one projects prevailing attitudes in the West about Western vis a vis Chinese culture. I would add here that nowadays when China’s economy is pulling the world behind it, American arrogance – for that is how it is perceived when you travel to China and speak in English – seems slightly anachronistic.

By speaking Chinese, however, you pay deference to your Chinese hosts and this is something they will not forget. When a vendor has to prioritize orders the fact that you attempted to speak Chinese to him/her or praised an aspect of Chinese culture – like calligraphy – while one of your competitors failed to do this may mean that you get a better position in the production queue or that more care is taken loading your product onto the container. Of course, in most cases trying out a few phrases from your Lonely Planet China guide may not make much of a difference at all. But the point is, you never know. It does not hurt to make the best possible impression you can on your vendor. I would add that speaking Chinese while you are in China will make your visit much more enjoyable. If, on the other hand, you travel to China and cannot speak any Chinese you will experience a lot of frustration.

For this reason, I always encourage people before they go to China to take a Mandarin class. I think speaking Chinese is an indispensible part of doing business in China. As the Chinese say 入乡随俗.(ru xiang sui su) When in Rome do as the Romans, or in this case, When in China, do as the Chinese.