Treat suppliers right to get the best results

To get the right results out of your suppliers you need to understand a little bit about how foreign culture can differ a little from American ways of doing things.

For instance, Americans like to cut to the chase. Some other cultures, on the other hand, will often prefer to spend a little time getting to know their counterparty before doing business.

And while US entrepreneurs often assume that if you’re the CEO that ought to impress people, Chinese companies think “Hey, what kind of CEO does their own purchasing? Don’t they have purchasing managers over there?”

So your first contact should be as a buyer, purchasing agent or purchasing manager. Make it clear that sourcing products is your job. (Actually, it can be quite useful having a CEO in the background. You can blame your CEO whenever you want to apply a little pressure –  the standard good cop / bad cop routine!)

Set the tone right from the beginning. Say where you are in your business, and where you see the business heading. You don’t need to tell lies if you’re starting out, but tell the supplier about your plans for growth, where you’d like to be in a couple of years’ time. Equally, mention the research that you’ve done on the market, and why you think they could be a good supplier.

Make sure you show your professionalism. Talk about how you organize inspections, and ask for a clause in the contract that states the company has to pay for a second inspection if the product fails the first inspection, for instance. Ask about MOQ by all means, but also ask about how easy it would be to scale up production – that way you don’t look like a cheapskate.

Many of the people you’re dealing with have spent a lot of time studying English but they won’t have quite the fluency of a native speaker, even if their accents are great. So use the principle of redundancy of communication to ensure the message gets through. For instance, send an email, then follow up by phone or chat.

That does two things. First, since personal relations are highly valued, your call says “Hey supplier, I care about you, I’m putting in some effort here.” Secondly, you can cross-check that your email has been understood correctly.

Use pictures as much as you can to show exactly what you want. That might be in terms of your branding – pictures of your other products or packaging – or in terms of product specifications. A picture of your intended product with dimensions and comments added is always a great way to get the message over.

You’ll probably be dealing with one person most of the time and it’s worth getting to know them. Be open to personal chat – “What are you doing for the weekend?” or “Good luck with your exam!” And try to learn just a few local phrases, which you can use in transcription – for example if you are working with Chinese suppliers you could use xie xie for “thank you”, or duo xie for “thanks a lot” when someone really goes out of their way to be helpful.

(If they really make miracles happen, gan xie is in order – “Wow, I am so grateful!”)

If you get a chance, perhaps not right now but when your business has grown a bit and you can support the level of cost, take a trip to visit the company. Sharing a meal with your supplier’s team and visiting the factory doesn’t just give you a chance to get to know more about your supplier, it also says “I care and want to be a good customer”. That might get you better prices, more suggestions of ways you can improve your product or sales, or a much higher place in the pecking order.

And finally, two very specific tips.

•      Don’t forget to mark Chinese New Year in your diary. In red. Everything stops for the New Year.

•      And use WeChat – it’s huge in China, if you are working with Chinese suppliers.


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