If you are like most e-commerce business owners, you want to establish strong relationships with suppliers in China. It is clear that you can often purchase very good products at much lower cost in China, and even with the added costs of shipping and importation you can experience an excellent return on your investment.

As a savvy entrepreneur you probably already know some of the basic rules that apply to working with Chinese suppliers and, in most cases, to all suppliers. In the case of China, you know that 1. you should beware of name brand goods originating from China, in fact you should probably run in the other direction if someone in China offers you branded products, since they are unlikely to be authentic; 2. you are also aware that each Chinese supplier should be thoroughlly verified before placing an order; 3. order small amounts until you have established a trusted relationship; 4. purchase by credit card if possible (or through an escrow arrangement with escrow.com); 5. avoid wire transfers and Western Union where possible, and; 6. for larger orders, hire an inspection company to ensure that you will receive the proper goods.

You probably also already know that there can be significant communication barriers to working with Chinese suppliers, even for those Chinese companies that employ English-speaking staff.

What you may not know is that the language barrier you experience can be the tip of the iceberg in terms of communication problems. Significant cultural differences can also severely hinder the development of the solid relationship that both you and your Chinese supplier would like to achieve. But there are solutions, and this eSources article series will provide them.

We have prepared this article series to give you a glimpse into the cultural and language issues that can plague these international relationships, then to show you how to use your understanding to forge even better relationships.

There are two caveats and going in suggestions associated with this article.

Caveat 1:
It is impossible to talk about Chinese people without making generalisations. While we think these generalisations will be helpful, please understand that it is really not possible to generalise about a country of 1.3 billion people. Your experience with your Chinese counterparts will vary based on location within China, ages, experience in international relationships, and so on.

Caveat 2:
As you read these articles, you may dismiss the information as not relevant to your situation. Please remember that you may not always be aware of the effect your approach has on your Chinese counterparts, and they are not likely to tell you.

Suggestion 1:

Recognise that Chinese business people are competent men and women with many of the same goals as you have. The cultural and language differences can be an opportunity to learn.

Suggestion 2:

Set aside your current ideas about your working relationships and think about your behavior through the eyes of your Chinese counterparts.

Improve Communication by Understanding Guan Xi

To understand how to improve communication, you need to understand a bit about the differences in how communication is viewed between cultures.

For many people from western cultures, communication is basically the exchange of information. For most Chinese, communication is much more than information exchange; it is also an extremely important part of relationship building. This difference in viewpoint can mean that Westerners sometimes unintentionally create barriers, by failing to treat communication carefully.

When Brits, Americans, Aussies, Canadians and so on begin a verbal or written communication with someone new, their goal is generally to create an easy environment for information exchange. This is often accomplished by relating a joke using a casual style, or being self-deprecating. The Chinese on the other hand begin communication by establishing who people are in terms of their network, and determining the relationship between the two communicators. They are especially interested in being sure that the person or people they are communicating with are afforded respect for the positions they hold.

The Chinese tend to rely on this understanding of contacts network, or guan xi, because these connections have historically been more stable than a person's position within a company or in the government. This guan xi is sometimes thought of as a negative corruption, or cronyism, but that is not necessarily true. Chinese people recognise mutual obligations based on personal relationships, and it is often the way things get done in a country where political structures change with some regularity. Your goal is to develop guan xi with your supplier.

Suggestions for building context

Treat each communication as a way to both exchange information and to build a relationship. Ask about local features, family or interests. Try to create linkages, as in I watched a basketball game last night and Yao did a great job scoring for the Celtics. Does he have as many Chinese fans as he does American fans?.

Even if you do not usually refer to yourself as the CEO or president of your small Internet business, it is not considered bragging to use that title when introducing yourself to your Chinese supplier. You are conveying important information about your position and authority to the person.

While suppliers may not have time for a great deal of small talk, you may want to provide some information about your larger network; e.g. mention that your cousin is working in Guangzhou, or that you had a Chinese friend from Hunan Province when you were attending Penn State. That information about your network helps people place you in a context.

The message here is that oftentimes building a relationship with a Chinese person starts with helping that person understand who you are within the network of your own relationships. Conversation that might in another culture seem like name dropping or bragging is often welcome in China. Certainly as China becomes a more sophisticated international culture, communciation will have less agenda associated with it. But for now it can not hurt to treat your communications as an opportunity for trust building.

In Part II we will look at how the Chinese view themselves in society, and how that impacts the way that they will deal with you.