The first business of Alibaba Group, Alibaba.com is the leading platform for global wholesale trade serving millions of buyers and suppliers around the world.
Through Alibaba.com, small businesses can sell their products to companies in other countries.
Sellers on Alibaba.com are typically manufacturers and distributors based in China and other manufacturing countries such as India, Pakistan, the United States and Japan.
One of the biggest challenges facing purchasing relationships between Western and Chinese businesses is communication. Specifically, challenges can arise when the style of communication used by Western buyers (North Americans, Europeans and Australians) comes into conflict with the style used by Chinese suppliers.
One of the first communication challenges that can arise is the language barrier. Most Westerners use English as either a first language or as the primary language of their business. Most Chinese suppliers do not use English as the primary language of their business; however, they can have English speaking staff available for customer support. Working with the English speaking staff members can decrease the challenge of communication. As a buyer, Westerners can also employ translation services or choose bilingual staff who can communicate in both languages. While being able to translate across languages is great, it’s important to note that some concepts can be “lost in translation” and can present higher hurdles to sourcing goods in China.
The second communication challenge that can arise is in the manner or style of communication. Western communication tends to be very direct, clear and concise. For most Westerners, they are taught to communicate in a way that “means what they say, and says what they mean.” In contrast, Chinese communication can use many analogies and stories to communicate meaning. The actual message of communication can be more nuanced, and one would need to filter through the dialogue to uncover the statement of importance. Even more confusing at times, is that sometimes within the dialogue there can be statements that are contradictory or misleading to the actual message of importance. For Westerners who tend to accept the first response at face value, this can be a frustrating shift.
The third communication challenge is purely cultural, and hinges on how acceptable it is to push back and tell superiors “no” or give negative responses. In Western society, it is perfectly acceptable to tell a superior or boss “no” if they ask a question. If there have been obstacles that have arisen that prevented a worker from completing their assigned task, it is fine to communicate those barriers to their boss. However, in Chinese culture it is considered very rude to say no to a superior. Also, it can be regarded as irresponsible not to complete a task that has been assigned, no matter what obstacles may have come up.
These differences in communication have been highlighted in the below conversation between a Western buyer and a Chinese supplier.
Buyer: Hello Chris, is the technical blueprint for the product complete?
Supplier: Yes, it is complete. We had problems making the transistors fit into the board, and needed to change size. Also, we had our lead technical architect on holiday, so we had to have others do the work which was slower.
Buyer: So is the blueprint for the product complete?
Supplier: Yes, it is complete. Some problems came up with the circuit board design, but we resolved them and worked over the weekend to make sure the problem was fixed.
Buyer: Okay, so can I have a copy of the blueprint to review?
Supplier: Yes, it is complete. We have sent the blueprint to assistant technical architect, who will look further with the team. Then we will send to quality group for approval.
Buyer: Okay, so when can I have a copy of the blueprint to review?
Supplier: Hmmm, yes. It is complete. Let’s see. I can send in one week.
Buyer: Chris, I’m confused. If everything is complete then why will it take another week to send to me?
Supplier: Hmmm, yes. It will take more time. I can send it one week.
By closely reading, one can see there is a miscommunication in style and culture here. There is an opportunity for the Buyer to listen carefully to the actual message that Chris is sharing, specifically to the obstacles that he is experiencing to completing the blueprint. There is also an opportunity for the Supplier to be more direct and share with their Western Buyer that the blueprint is not ready.
By ensuring that there is a clear understanding of the communication styles, Western companies can avoid disappointments and misunderstandings when sourcing goods from China. Also, Chinese suppliers can make efforts to minimize stories and be more direct in their communication style. When both sides are making efforts to communicate a clear message, business relationships between Western buyers and Chinese suppliers can thrive.