As experienced buyers have come to know, it's important to stay close with your Chinese suppliers. That means visiting your suppliers in China from time to time.

It's beneficial to make actual face to face visits with your suppliers for many reasons, not least of which to discuss the details of current projects. However these visits serve an even more important purpose: the opportunity to build the kinds of personal relationships (in Chinese: guanxi) which are the foundation of virtually all business that is done in China. Spending quality time with your Chinese suppliers is absolutely essential in creating a strong and quality-focused supply chain, and should not be overlooked as an unnecessary part of the process.

Based on the thousands of factory visits we've attended here at InTouch, we've compiled a list of the top 5 things to prepare (or be prepared for) when visiting your Chinese suppliers. Here we go:

1. Quality Time

Be prepared to put away the laptops and shipping schedules for as long as you can and spend some real "quality" time with your supplier. One of the most common philosophies in China is "First Make Friends, Then Make Business." In fact this concept runs very deep in the minds of the Chinese. As a result, time spent building a true friendship with your supplier will pay off exponentially when it's time to talk business.

In the cases of a supplier who is very important to your supply chain, ideally we recommend scheduling at least one leisure outing or activity annually. Going for a hike together is a fun and simple way to accomplish this, as a lot of areas in China have accessible mountains and hiking trails. Another one is to make a day trip to a different city or town that may be nearby the factory. There are plenty of good little "tourist towns" in China that are perfect for this kind of occasion.

It may seem unnecessary at the time, but the payoff of truly building a strong relationship (outside of the office) is well worth it in the long term.

2. Be Prepared (Notes, Documents, Specs)

This is good advice for meetings anywhere, but when you’re traveling halfway around the world visiting your suppliers in China, it takes on new significance: be prepared. You may have only a few hours with someone you likely will not see again for another year or longer, so a forgotten document or sample can cause huge headaches. From our experience, there's no substitute for having things like product specifications, QC checklists and production schedules printed out as hard copies. It's just not the same trying to show someone on your computer screen, and hard copies can be distributed to everyone in the meetings for note-taking purposes. Additionally, if you've been experiencing quality problems or other issues with your supplier, be prepared with plenty of photos and documentation.

Finally, make sure you have a clear agenda. Even if it's only organized into bullet points, send it to the supplier several days before your arrival. Your Chinese supplier will be impressed with your organization and preparation, and structuring your meetings will increase efficiency.

3. About You

It's important to have something to say about your company, and even your personal background, when you are meeting face to face with your Chinese suppliers. Meticulous detail is not required, but we recommend preparing a short presentation about what you have been working on, mainly in sales and marketing, since you last saw the supplier. Something as simple as a few slides from a PowerPoint will show the supplier that you are not only proud of your business and accomplishments, but also want to share this with them.

When it comes to talking about your own company, don’t be shy. If you have a long-history or an otherwise interesting back-story, by all means take the opportunity to share. Chinese culture goes back well over 3000 years – a fact the Chinese are quite proud of - so talking about your history and the beginnings of the company is always a great place to start.

4. Gifts

Giving your supplier a gift represents a gesture of friendship, which is the reason it can be so powerful (see point #1 above). Gift-giving is appropriate for 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 (it may come off as "over the top").

If you decide to bring a gift for your supplier, keep these helpful tips in mind:

  • Don't go overboard – Select a gift that fits the kind of relationship you have with your supplier. In most cases, you don't see them that often, and you probably don't have a very close personal relationship. Don't go buying them a gold bracelet or diamonds, even if you want to impress them. Simple and meaningful gifts, especially those that come from your hometown, are your best bet. Food is an especially good idea, such as a specialty snack from your hometown or country. A framed photograph of you and the supplier can be a great gift, as well as a way to commemorate a previous outing you’ve shared, as described in point #1.
  • Give from the Top Down - 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 first check with their supervisor. Or, at least bring the same gift for the merchandiser’s supervisor, just to be safe.

5. Get Ready to Eat!

This last suggestion doesn’t call for any preparation on your end, just that you consider enjoying the hospitality you will surely be offered. When visiting your suppliers in China, their management staff will almost always invite you to either lunch or dinner (or both), depending on the time or length of your visit. It's always best to accept this offer if possible. And, if you are keen, go ahead and partake in some alcoholic beverages! In northern China especially, relationships are often fortified while sharing some local beer (in Chinese: pijiu) or the traditional (and much stronger) Chinese liquor known as baijiu. In fact, some people will not even talk to you if you don't drink! Having a few drinks with your supplier is a great way to build the relationship, and have some fun.

Also, it's perfectly acceptable to offer to share the bill with your hosts, but trust us - they will never let you pay! Once they’ve declined your first offer, you can leave it at that. Alternatively, you can just let them pay the bill and say thank you without offering to pay at all – rest assured that no offense will be taken.

Don't dwell on settling the bill; the time you are spending with them and friendship you are building is what it's all about. Enjoy the levity of these brief reprieves from business matters, and know that they will surely pave the way for smoother negotiations when you all return to the conference table.


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