Importing from China - Part 3

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"Speaking to the Chinese - no need to speak Chinese"
Importing from China isn't as hard as it used to be, and it certainly isn't as difficult as a lot of people believe. One of the reasons many business people source their products inside their own country or region is that they feel safe doing business with nationalities they know, especially where the language is the same. If everything is going OK, why waste time or take a risk trying to start afresh with an unfamiliar, foreign supplier?

Well, we've already talked about the benefits of buying from China - the bottom line! But in many of the questions submitted by members of our China Import Newsletter, I've seen variations of these questions:

How can I deal with Chinese people, if they don't speak English?

Are Chinese companies familiar with a Western way of doing business?

Can I trust a supplier in China?

Can Chinese suppliers really deal with me successfully?

How do I know if Chinese factories and distributors are modern and professional enough to supply my needs?

Are Chinese suppliers actually allowed to export to my country?

These are all good questions, and if you're asking these questions, it's a good thing. To be doubtful and careful is a wise approach whatever you are doing in the import / export business. I am going to try to give you answers to all of those questions in today's fourth section.

If you're already asking the type of questions above, the chances are that you are on the right path to researching a solid, reliable set of suppliers for your import business.

I've seen a lot of customers who are first-time importers, for example starting an EBay shop, come directly into our online sales at with a first purchase of several thousand US dollars, without asking us a single question before. Now that's fine of course, because naturally you can trust us here at Chinavasion and the information we give to new customers in our FAQs gives a clear idea of what you're getting.

But I sometimes worry if the same people are doing the same thing - "jumping in quick and hoping for the best" with unreliable or disorganised companies in China. A lot of Chinese companies can be found through the internet, and they often advertise things they can't really deliver, or at least their service is not professionally set up to deal with export customers smoothly. I guess there are a lot of newcomers to the import business who start with their first orders to that kind of company, and maybe get very disappointed or even lose a lot of money.

So the idea I want to give you today is that when you deal with any Chinese company, you need to establish a steady, communicative relationship. The Chinese style is to communicate a lot and build a relationship. If you are communicating clearly with your suppliers, and in a positive way, you will run into fewer problems throughout all your business deals.

But China is such a different place, and the language difference causes a barrier sometimes - how can you get this positive communication going?
"In China, human networks are more important than computer networks."
When you communicate with Chinese people, you want to make sure that you make a good impression and build up the positive feeling in your business relationship. You can't understate the importance of this to Chinese people. Communications need to be polite and positive.

Here are some of my tips on good business communication with Chinese people:

Always say please and thank you. Say "I'm sorry to bother you" and "Is this an OK time to call?" In emails say "I appreciate your help, [name]".

Make your communications personal and use the other person's name. If you are speaking on the phone, it's OK to make some small talk. You can also use your name e.g. "it's Peter here calling from Norway, remember I am the one who ordered the cellphones last month?" to help the other person get to know and remember you. That will work in your favour because you will receive more personal service.

Don't tell people directly that they are wrong. Chinese people are always right. No, only kidding, but in Chinese culture if you say "you are wrong!" or even "that's not true" you are creating a conflict, not harmony. If you must disagree, use diplomatic words. If you create a confrontation situation, the cultural response for Chinese people is to shut up and cease communicating.

It's perhaps not a good habit, but if you ask Chinese people a question to which they don't know the answer, they will usually avoid saying "I don't know". So you may get a general answer, or three answers, or no answer at all. After some time you will get a feeling for when people know what they are talking about and you will learn how to get information from other people without hurting the feelings of the one who doesn't know.

When it comes to money, you need to negotiate, not demand. Always find more and more variables which can be used as discussion points and possible concessions. "Refusing to budge" or "stonewalling" means you will make the Chinese people think you are not interested in business and they will send you away empty handed.

Never raise your voice on the phone, and in an email don't USE ANGRY CAPITALS! It just won't get you anywhere with us Chinese I'm afraid!


Now please read the above points again because they are the most useful tips any newcomer to China could receive!


Emailing Chinese people

Don't be too concerned if your business contact has a non-business email address e.g. . A lot of people use these webmail services because they are faster and more reliable than trying to access company POP mail.

Often, if a Chinese person emails you an MS Word document with Chinese characters, you won't be able to open it. Ask them to re-send it in PDF or RTF (i.e. rich text format) and it should be OK.

It's always helpful to copy text from previous emails and include full references e.g. to invoice numbers, customer numbers, dates, etc. Your supplier may have many foreign clients handled by only a few people, and the more you can help them identify you, the more efficiently they're going to be able to help you.


Web chatting... for business

Chinese people love instant messaging like Skype, MSN, and (the Chinese network) QQ.

Don't be surprised if Chinese people ask you for your instant messaging address because a lot of people here use these systems for day-to-day business communications.

By the way, no one in China uses AOL and Skype is still not as popular as MSN. QQ is generally only used by Chinese people, but a lot of Chinese people think it's universal so will ask you for your number.


Telephoning China

The China country code is +86 (and Hong Kong is +852)

Area codes begin with (0) e.g. Shenzhen where Chinavasion is, is 0755, but you leave out the zero when you dial from abroad.

China time is GMT +8 hours for the whole of China - no difficult time zones like you Americans and Aussies!

Chinese people almost never have voicemail or answering machines.

With many office phone networks, if a line is busy and you call it, you will still hear a ringing tone. So you will think no one is answering! Yes, it is a stupid system. Be patient and try again later!


English Language in China

So, how good are Chinese people at English? Well, Chinese kids now learn English for over 10 years in their schooling, but the standards of teaching for the current generation of business people were not so great. So some of us are pretty bad at speaking, but our writing may be OK. And for others... they are just terrible all-round! If you've found a good supplier, you don't want to give up just because your contact person's English isn't perfect.

Here are some tips on how not to get frustrated:

When you are speaking, remember to speak clearly and slowly. That can make a big difference.

Give the other person time to write down information.

For Chinese people it's often difficult to use the right words to get a polite tone. For example on the phone someone may tell you "Wait a minute!" ... which sounds rude, right? But they mean "Please hang on a moment" ... they're not trying to be rude!

In Chinese languages, the word for "he" and "she" is the same. So if your Chinese contact refers to your female colleagues as "he" please don't be too surprised - they do know she's a woman!

In Chinese there are no verb forms for tenses. That is, in English we say "I am going", "I went", "I will go" etc but in Chinese you just say "I today go", "I yesterday go", "I tomorrow go" etc. So if your Chinese contact is telling you something, and you are not sure if it already happened, or is going to happen in the future, please ask!!

As with all communications, it can't hurt to ask questions, repeat your understanding to clarify agreements, and confirm things in writing.

"Making contact with Chinese suppliers - starting out on the right foot"
A lot of people who emailed me to ask questions about importing from China mentioned this problem:

"I've contacted loads of Chinese suppliers... but they never get back to me. How do I get a response from them?"

First of all, you need to make sure you've allowed enough time for them to get back to you. If you've emailed and a week has gone past, try faxing or phoning. Or try emailing again, copying your original enquiry.

However, I think the main reason people don't get the response they want is that they don't begin the communications in the right way.


This is the wrong way to write to a Chinese supplier:


hi i am intrested to import from yall -- u can gimme the full price list and btw do you have iPods??? and wot about free samplez?!?

thanx bye


OK, maybe a bit exaggerated example, but can you see how in their pile of daily emails, the Chinese supplier might not take this kind of email seriously?

Let's look at some other failed first enquiries:

To whom it may concern,

Our company is one of the top businesses listed on the Brazilian stock exchange. With over $3bn in assets and 50 years' history importing from all over the world, our customers love us because... ... ...

[... blah blah blah]
[ ++ 5 pages of company information + brochure attachments]

We look forward to your reply.

Yours faithfully,
Mr Boss Big Shot
CEO, President, Demigod
Egos-R-Us plc


That email is going to get junked, not because it lacks credibility but because:

It is boring

It is too long for an average Chinese person to read

It doesn't actually ask a question, so how can we reply?


Can you guess why this next person never got an answer?



I've seen your company clothing and shoes catalogue and I think you people at ChinaTextile can help me.

I need to find a supplier for car tyres and also for baby toys. I know both of these are made in China, and you guys are in China, so you must be able to help me right?



In case you think that's exaggerated, I've answered emails we've received at Rebel imports Wholesale Electronics from people asking to supply them with steel nails, rice, insurance, knives, and sex toys.

And how about this next one - have you ever perhaps sent an email a little like this?


Dear Sir,

I have seen your website with special gadgets and I need you to supply me with a product according to the following specifications.

The product needs to be as follows:
- GPS locator
- Lightweight but made of metal
- Have solar power
- Have a full colour screen which can be hit with a hammer and won't break
- Optionally have a full waterproof body
- Can be mounted on any normal sniper rifle

Please get back to me immediately with a proforma invoice quoting prices for 50,000 pcs, 100,000 pcs, and 1 million pcs and full information about how fast you can ship this to me CIF Antarctica.

Best regards,
Mr Leet Importer

What are the problems here?

Too demanding

Not asking about an actual product

Immediately demanding prices for a non-specific quote

Asking about huge quantity orders right from the start


The China supplier may not even bother replying to your emails if there isn't a straightforward quick answer they can give!


How to write a good first enquiry.


OK, enough cricitism for today! Here is my positive advice about your first enquiry email:


Write a descriptive subject line.

Don't write "URGENT", "important", or "reply asap" in the subject line because everyone thinks their own emails are the most important and for the Chinese person receiving it, it's just annoying.

Write a full, mainly formal email beginning "Dear ..." (to a person's name if you know it) and an ending "Best regards" with a footer including your contact details.

Use a spell checker, and write with normal capitalisation. And do you think it looks nice to write a question like this??!!????

Tell them where you found out about their company, and state their company name so your email doesn't look like a bulk mailing.

BRIEFLY introduce your company and what your position is.

Use the email to establish communication instead of demanding information.

If you ask about products, refer to actual products and not general categories, and I don't think you need to talk about price quotations in the first email.

Don't demand references such as company certificates from the beginning.

Don't ask them a huge list of complex questions about taxes, shipping, warranties, terms and conditions etc. That can wait for later.


You can apply these same ideas to phone calls - introduce yourself, ask simple questions that can be answered, and focus on building a communication, not on demanding details.


Here is the type of good email I think Chinese suppliers would happily reply to - you can change the details and use it as a template for your own sourcing enquiries:


[subject:] Enquiry regarding earphones from Roger Peres, Mexico Sounds Ltd.

Dear Ms Li,

I found the details of your company "ChinaSonic" in the trade magazine "Earphone Sources".

My company is Mexico Sounds Ltd, based in Mexico City, and my position is Purchasing Manager.

I am interested in finding new high quality earphones and headphones, and I think your company looks like an excellent possible supplier.

Please could you let me know if you can export earphone products to Mexico?

If so, please can you send me a catalogue of your products or a price list? I have seen a picture of your bud-type earphones, model [E-40b] and products similar to these would be interesting to us.

I will be very interested to speak with you more about buying from ChinaSonic. If you would like to telephone me at the number below, or email me, I will be glad to talk with you.

I look forward to your reply.

Best regards,

Roger Peres
Purchasing Manager, Mexico Sounds Ltd



Realistic expectations

You have to be realistic about how much information your supplier can give you and how excellent their customer service is going to be. Remember, you're not dealing with a retail shop - it's probably a factory or a wholesaler, so they probably haven't got the staff or the expertise to deal with "live" customer service.

Don't expect toll-free helplines!

Don't expect voicemail.

Don't expect the people to remember who you are if you just phone up and say "it's Bob here" or email without signing your name and company footer.

Don't expect instant answers to your emails.

Don't expect the Chinese supplier to know much about the import taxes or licences for your country. After all, do you know the Chinese laws and tariffs for a Chinese person importing from your country? Didn't think so!

Don't expect a distributor or wholesaler to know all the details about their products. They will be able to find out, but the "English speaking office assistant" on the phone very likely isn't a technician, so go easy on them.

If the company has already sent you a product specification or price list, don't expect them to be able to provide lots more photos, manuals, or technical specifications. The quickest way for you would probably be to buy a sample.

If you get a price list early on, these prices might change later (higher).

If you get prices quoted and you are a brand new customer, don't expect to be able to bargain these down right away. Especially if you are only buying a smaller quantity.

If you're a new buyer you may sometimes feel that you're not getting full attention from your supplier. Don't worry, Chinese business people take some time to get to know people. Chinese customer service is not bad at all, but you can't expect to be in the VIP client circle straight away.

As you become better known to your contact people and your relationship as a buyer has more time and trust, you will find that your customer service from the Chinese supplier improves. A long-term relationship with a supplier is a very valuable thing to have, because you will get better prices, and the new, best products, before everyone else. It's worth investing the time and patience.
"Starting Your China Communications"
Here are the questions I summarised at the beginning of this part of the mini-course, and my short answers for each one:


How can I deal with Chinese people, if they don't speak English?

Most export-oriented companies will have at least one person who can communicate in English. Speaking English is much harder for Chinese people because our education system stresses reading and writing. So if you have problems on the phone, talk slow and don't get upset. And then confirm everything by email later!


Are Chinese companies familiar with a Western way of doing business?
You should expect your Chinese supplier to deal with you in a prompt, professional, efficient way. In that sense, Chinese business functions the same way as it should everywhere. But if you expect Chinese companies to follow your systems, don't be too disappointed when they tell you "yes" and then completely ignore you!


Can I trust a supplier in China?
China is the same as every other country in the world - there are always a few people who are out to cheat you. But actually when it comes to business the Chinese people have an honest attitude. If you approach your deals in a careful, organised, honest way, you will have little to fear because the Chinese companies will be happy to establish a good long term relationship with a good customer.


Can Chinese suppliers really deal with me successfully?
There are all sorts of suppliers in China - big / small; factory / distributor; specialist / general.... When you are starting out with your China importing, you will find a lot of people who can't give you what you need. Don't give up - soon you will find some great business partners, whatever you're importing, and then you'll wonder why you waited so long to "get into China".


How do I know if Chinese factories and distributors are modern and professional enough to supply my needs?
Basically, you have to test each supplier with samples and small orders before you proceed with large quantities. Don't rely on sales pitches or brands - just rely on what you can see and how successfully your orders are getting fulfilled.


Are Chinese suppliers actually allowed to export to my country?
There are some complex regulations about export licences in China, but don't worry, these will be already be taken care of by the Chinese companies, otherwise they wouldn't be advertising to export in the first place. What you should be thinking about is - "am I allowed to import this product in these quantities to this country?" and that information is for you to find out yourself!
"Chinese People Value Harmony"
How can you sum up how to start your communications with a Chinese supplier? I think of it like this:

"be cautious, but don't seem suspicious; make enquiries, not demands".

If you follow this attitude I can promise you, you will be much more successful in the long term in your dealings with Chinese businesspeople, because you will create a harmonious business relationship.

One of the things you will notice if you visit China or deal with Chinese people a lot is that we are very proud of our history and culture! The Chinese way of thinking about everything in life is really very different to the Western way.

Like it or not, Chinese people tend to believe their way of communicating and doing business is the "normal, correct" way, and your way is the foreign way!! So please don't expect Chinese business contacts to change their style and adapt to your way of thinking - at least not too much too fast. Try to be understanding if you find you can't seem to communicate in the way you expected at first!

Work with Chinese people in a patient, polite way, and the rewards will come back to you in the long term!


Import from China Mini-Course-- Part 3:
Your Internet Research Resources

China Business Negotiating Tips
How to make sure you are communicating right in Chinese business culture!

China Business Etiquette
Tips on how to fit into the Chinese business world.

Import Incoterms
A list of the key import abbreviations used for negotiating prices. You DO need to be familiar with these!



Note from Rob

Thank you for reading part 3 of the Chinavasion Import from China Mini-Course. As you know, I like to express my opinion based on my experiences. If you talk to other Chinese people about good communications they may give you other good ideas I haven't thought of. If you've got some Chinese friends or contacts, talk with them about whether they feel Western people communicate in a different way. And I'd be really interested to hear about these experiences of dealing with (or failing to deal with!) Chinese suppliers.


Coming Up in the Next Part of the Rebel Imports Import From China Mini-Course:

Part 4: Shipping and Import Taxes

How to deliver goods from China to your country. Choosing the best shipping method for different goods.

The taxes you don't need to worry about-- and the ones you do!

Tips on reducing your import tax bill.


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