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International Trade

How to have effective communication with Chinese suppliers?

Despite the highly globalized world we live in, we still often hear stories – some funny, others not – about how imports businesses have been affected by cultural differences with Chinese suppliers. It’s a simple fact that different countries have different cultures. And culture effect everything from communication styles, idioms and jargon, relationship maintenance, and plenty of other areas important to conducting business.

Chinese suppliers have learned how to adapt to the “American Style,” but many American businesses involved with China have yet to learn the Chinese style of conducting business. When both parties adapt to one another’s culture, business will always go smoother and relationships will last longer.

The big question is “How?” How do we get Americans, who are used to doing things one way, to recognize the Chinese culture that informs how Chinese people conduct business?  There are many articles in the web about the culture and communication of Chinese people. The China Culture Corner and the Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator are just two examples that provide thorough insights about how the Chinese culture works. While you can google those articles, we will offer you a summary of the key points that should be kept in mind when with Chinese persons in business matters, specifically for the benefit of shipment quotes and coordination.

Important cultural key points:

Respect hierarchies

Hierarchies are important in China, so jumping the ladder will never be appreciated by your Chinese suppliers. Find ways to work with your current contacts, and if you really have a problem that needs escalation, find a way to ask your contact to help you speak to a higher rank person.


Be clear about what you want, what you like, and what you don’t like. Chinese communications makes use of several layers of consideration and analysis, and this may delay an action if you don’t provide a clear message about what is needed from the other party. Therefore being direct, but also respectful, will help speed up the action. Avoid starting with a phrase like “So it seems like we are ready for import.” This type of message says that nothing is certain – either you are ready or not, and you have to communicate that.

Appreciate the good work

American businesspeople like to know how they are doing, and the same is true for their Chinese counterparts. For them, it is important to know their work is satisfying you, and if not, they want to know as well so they can improve.

Practical key points for daily communications:

Provide full information

When you request a freight quote, you should know the exact origin and destination of your shipment. If you don’t know the exact address, mention to your Chinese suppliers that you don’t know, otherwise you will get an email back asking you for the address – which will delay the preparation of your rates at least for a day, or more. If you say from the beginning that you don’t know a delivery address, ask them to provide an open rate for the whole city, or ask them to provide the quote without the last delivery leg, then at least you will have an estimate of the freight.

Provide clear information

Give clear instructions, clear information, and short sentences. Do not assume that your acronyms or abbreviations are known by everyone around the world. For example, if you want to talk about dangerous goods do not write “DG” only, spell out the words. If your state is Wyoming, do not just write WY in the middle of a sentence without a specified address – most people outside the US do not know state abbreviations.

Use lists

If you want to explain that you have 3 shipments coming from China to 3 different locations, don’t make a whole paragraph about it. Give an introduction, and divide your information into sections. Use numbers and bullet points. In summary, make it easy to read.

Follow your Chinese suppliers' time zone

This will save you days, energy, and money. Work in the evening for one or two hours during a key period when you need urgent responses from your Chinese suppliers and you will benefit from much faster communication. This is because you will be able to read the messages from China when they reply during their morning time – 6pm or 7pm US time – and you will be able to email or call immediately. If you reply during the next US morning, they will probably be out of the office already. Work a bit late and you’ll make the communications a lot more effective.

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