Western buyers working directly with Chinese manufacturers must overcome a number of obstacles in order to do business smoothly. These include huge time differences, varying perspectives on product quality, obvious language barriers, and also more subtle cultural gaps. Bridging this cultural divide can work wonders for western buyers.

Understanding and navigating cultural differences is key to developing influential relationships known in Mandarin as guanxi (关系). By showing a sincere interest and appreciation for Chinese culture, buyers can engender a mutual respect and understanding that will significantly aid business negotiations.

1. Think Outside the Conference Room

Mixing business and pleasure is far more accepted – and even encouraged – in China than it is in many western countries. Western buyers should try to embrace this, as outright refusal to participate could be seen as rude.

Four Cultural Tips That Will Make Your Suppliers LOVE You

After the day’s meetings are over, accept your supplier’s invitations to dinner, karaoke (known as KTV), and drinks. Keep your wits about you, but take this as an opportunity loosen up and show your suppliers you know how to have fun.

2. Lay It On Thick

Everyone likes a compliment, and your Chinese business partners are no different. Well, maybe a little bit different: western social norms dictate that no one likes a suck-up, but in China a little brown-nosing can go a long way.

Four Cultural Tips That Will Make Your Suppliers LOVE You

The key here is the Chinese concept of mianzi (面子) or “face,” which means reputation, prestige, or honor. It may feel strange, but take any opportunity to compliment your supplier, especially in front of their coworkers. This is called gei mianzi (給面子), “giving face”. It may not be immediately reciprocated, but it will be greatly appreciated.

3. Don’t Come Empty Handed

Gift-giving plays a prominent role in many cultures, but the etiquette tends to vary widely. In China it is appropriate to give gifts to suppliers that you have been working with for a long time, as well as for those you have only ordered from a few times. That being said, it’s generally not appropriate to offer gifts to a supplier that you have not yet done business with.When giving gifts in China, keep in mind these two tips: don’t go overboard, and give from the top down.

Four Cultural Tips That Will Make Your Suppliers LOVE You

Select a gift that fits the kind of relationship you have with your supplier. Simple and meaningful gifts, especially those that come from your hometown, are your best bet. In most cases it’s not appropriate to give a gift to someone if you are not giving a gift of equal or greater value to that person’s superiors. For example, if you are working with a merchandiser at the factory and would really like to bring a gift for him or her, it’s a good idea to also bring a gift for the merchandiser’s supervisor, just to be safe.

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4. Speak Their Language

Or bring someone that does. Clear communication is crucial for you and your Chinese counterparts to do business efficiently. Because of this, it is recommended that you bring an interpreter that will be able to express your ideas and questions in your Chinese partners’ native tongue.

Four Cultural Tips That Will Make Your Suppliers LOVE You

If that is not possible, speak English slowly and carefully. You may actually be impressed with your supplier’s grasp of English. However, try not to use colloquialisms or phrases that may not be understood by non-native speakers. The onus is on you here to make sure you are understood: it may be embarrassing for your audience to ask for clarification, instead nodding along and agreeing to things they do not fully comprehend.

Finally, if you do know any Mandarin (or Cantonese, if you’re visiting southern China), break it out! Even a stilted ni hao (你好, hello) or xie xie (谢谢, thank you) will surely elicit a positive response and ease any tension in the room.


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