Many Western importers find it’s relatively easy to find suppliers online, however, to properly communicate with China suppliers is usually daunting. Are there any tips about how to improve communications with your suppliers? Here are some.

1. Keep emails simple when communicating with suppliers

Importers sometimes send a barrage of emails to a supplier in a short period of time—all relating to the same issue. These emails sometimes contain technical English, slang or spelling mistakes. You may feel your Chinese supplier’s English is pretty good. But there’s a strong chance they’re regularly copying your emails directly into an online translator to understand the meaning in their native language. Sending many different emails, using complicated language or including spelling mistakes in your message can all lead to misunderstandings. And in doing so, you also risk having your supplier miss the key points of your email. Limit your email correspondence to one simple email chain per topic when possible. Use short words, short sentences and bulleted or numbered lists to help the supplier more easily respond to different points.

2. Follow up with a phone call

Getting your contact on the phone is one way to quickly improve communication with suppliers.  It’s often best to contact your supplier by phone if they don’t respond to an email within a reasonable amount of time or become generally unresponsive. Reviewing details over the phone can also help you avoid misunderstandings and gauge whether a supplier genuinely understands your message. If you doubt your supplier’s understanding, simplify your message like you might if you were explaining to your grandmother. Speaking slowly and in simpler terms will go a long way in ensuring your expectations are clear.

3. Limit the number of contact people

Having to deal with several different people can complicate buyer-seller communication. Requirements can easily get lost in translation as they’re transferred from one contact to another. Limiting the number of people, you talk to can help. Whenever possible, designate one person from your organization to act as the key contact to liaise with your supplier. That person should ideally be someone sensitive to the local culture with the ability to communicate in simple, easy-to-understand English, or even better, in the local language. Likewise, your communication can improve by having a single point of contact on the supplier’s end. It’s often best to have a contact that’s actually working in the factory where your goods are being made.

4. Make contact with suppliers through QQ

QQ can be an effective mode of communication with Chinese suppliers who are hard to reach by email and phone. While email remains the preferred communication tool in the West, Chinese professionals largely prefer online chat as their method of choice. Partly due to a lack of desktop PCs at the time email emerged, China never quite fully adopted the Western custom of habitually checking email. That’s not to say you shouldn’t still rely on email or phone calls for more formal communication like negotiating contracts. But QQ can be great for informally checking in on your supplier’s progress. You’re more likely to reach suppliers wherever they are—on a train, in a taxi or in the office—with QQ than with email.

5. Create a QC checklist to set clear quality requirements

Are your requirements spread out in multiple email chains, embedded in a long-winded paragraph or split into several different email attachments? If so, important details are likely lost in the process.

In the quality control industry, this kind of document is known as a QC checklist. Along with any approved samples, a QC checklist can serve as a reference of your requirements for both factory staff and QC inspectors. Sending a QC checklist to your supplier before production even begins is a great way to limit miscommunication. This gives the supplier an opportunity to review your requirements and confirm their ability to meet them, ask questions and offer feedback.

6. Share product inspection results with your supplier

Some importers just glance at a product inspection report, check if the result is pass or fail and advise whether to hold or release the shipment accordingly. Then they set the report aside and don’t bother to review it again. They “rinse and repeat” when placing the next order, following the same process but expecting different results. Whether performed by you or a professional third party on your behalf, outside inspection can pinpoint issues and help your supplier improve. Inspectors may find quality issues you didn’t expect could appear. This often happens if you’ve omitted a requirement from your checklist. And if you want to prevent the same issue from reoccurring, you’ll need to communicate the issue and your tolerance for it to your supplier.

7. Meet with your supplier in person

Not all importers have a budget that allows them to visit their suppliers overseas.  But arranging a visit can be well worth the investment if you’re serious about improving communication and cultivating a long-term relationship with your supplier. Meeting suppliers in person helps put a face to your name. Large suppliers handle thousands of purchase orders a year. And your requirements can easily get lost in stack of others’. But if you go the extra mile (literally) to visit them, they just might prioritize your orders a little bit more.

8. Involve your third-party inspection company when liaising with suppliers

Even if you’ve sourced from China for years and routinely visit your suppliers, you might not speak Chinese. And there’s nothing wrong with that—chances are you’ve got much higher priorities!

Working with a third-party inspection company can improve your communication with your supplier in ways you never could without Chinese language abilities. If you involve your inspection company early enough in the process, they can also support you by clarifying requirements to prevent potential problems later.

9. Trust your supplier (but always verify)

This last point might seem contradictory to some of the above advice. But even the most experienced importers know due diligence is essential when working with a new supplier, no matter how credible that supplier may appear. You’re never wrong to appropriately confirm the information your supplier communicates to you. In fact, you’d be reckless to blindly trust your supplier if you have any expectations at all for what you’re buying. Failure to investigate a supplier’s claims early often leads to a breakdown in communication and in your supplier relationship later.


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