Ensuring quality when dealing with Chinese companies means communicating on the same wavelength. That takes extra effort on both sides.
By Mia Doucet
According to a survey I did a while ago, many business owners who work with mainland Chinese suppliers report that consistent quality is their biggest challenge.
As Happy Holden, technical marketing manager for Asian Pacific Services in Milford, Conn., told me: “Our biggest challenge in doing business in China is quality, reliability, and delivery. The cost is actually quite low, but that is part of the problem. We are constantly being disappointed by our Chinese suppliers because they are taking shortcuts we have not approved to save money. This has resulted in product yield loss and reliability problems.”
Sometimes in my cross-cultural training sessions, I am asked, “Why should Westerners take all the responsibility for communication? Doesn’t it go both ways?”
Yes. It goes both ways. But, communication often surfaces as the most critical component when things go awry. Language and cultural differences, geographic distance, and time zone differences require more effort at good communication for things to go smoothly.
Communications and Standards
There must be quality communication. As Jinseung Lee, applications engineer in the motor division of Siemens VDO Automotive Inc. explains, “Most Westerners think that most Asians speak English well. That is a big misunderstanding. The person who works in overseas marketing does, but the engineers and quality control people don’t. Westerners make their presentations, unaware they are not being understood 100 percent. Asians have a lot of ideas, but it’s hard to explain over the language barrier.”
>>> There are three important questions to ask about communication.
1. Do all the people in your firm who interact with your Chinese customer know how to communicate clearly with Asians?
2. Do they know how to avoid getting the answer “Yes” to every question? (As you probably know, Asians say “Yes” to almost everything. But the “Yes” can mean a hundred things other than what we mean by “Yes.” That leads to trouble.)
3. Do they know the right questions to ask to elicit the required information?
Quality standards are a must. Some Chinese factories have stringent quality controls. Some go through the motions. A customer told me about a copper tube factory he visited in China that claimed to have “stringent quality controls” in place. As far as he could see, “the quality standard consisted of having a young woman stand at the end of the production line touching each item as it dropped into its package.”
>>> There are seven things to consider, or to do, in striving for quality standards.
1. Do your standards and the factory owner’s standards coincide?
2. Ask what specific steps they will take to assure a quality process. You want to make sure that their definition of quality is not just to produce sufficient quantity to assure that the final number of products will meet your standard.
3. Get agreement that management will properly train employees. (Chinese employers typically do not want to pay for training.)
4. Get assurance they will not take shortcuts you have not approved in order to save money.
5. Hire someone to be in charge of quality control.
6. Do the quality tests on your own.
7. Make sure your supplier carries liability insurance.
A client, Brahm Swirsky, vice president of procurement for Noble Trade Inc. in Concord, Ontario, suggests that you “do business with factories that are already doing business with North American or European firms. Know their source of supply. Which markets are they already selling to? Who are their customers? What are their liabilities? If not, it’s your own ticket. So you have to ensure quality of the product before it leaves the factory.”
Everyone involved in a business transaction has certain expectations. In the West, we like to hear from our supplier every four hours when there is a problem. We want our questions answered at once: “What are you doing to solve the problem? When is it going to be fixed?”
North American suppliers respond quickly. If they don’t have the answer, they’ll call or e-mail to let you know they’re working on it.
Typically, Asian suppliers will not do the same. If they don’t have the answer, you won’t hear from them. They will avoid the conversation and are unlikely to even send an e-mail confirming that they received your enquiry. Is this an avoidance tactic? Usually, it’s not.
Asians do not like to respond until they have a complete answer. That would mean loss of face. They think, “How will you be able to trust me in the future if I give you an inaccurate response now?”
Set the expectation so that, if a problem occurs, they should let you know right away, and that it’s okay to respond without full details.
Expect that if there are quality problems, they will take longer to resolve.
There are significant cost savings to be had when sourcing in China. But I am of the firm belief that the low cost is part of the problem. Sometimes you have to talk the supplier into charging more so that they have enough margin to ensure the quality you seek. What a concept.
Mia Doucet is a coach, consultant, and trainer who advises clients, mainly technical people, how to support a company's sales efforts. She can be reached through her Web site, www.miadoucet.com.