21 December 2008
Apologize and I will give you the photo – more on dealing with local suppliers
Posted by Roger under: Chinese Suppliers .
In addition to Millstone Trading, one of ACF’s other specialties is collecting and restoring Chinese antique furniture and building Chinese antique reproductions. When a customer purchased a few cubic meters of product (less then a container load), they then requested the product be sent over to another supplier, also well known as a reputable factory where many Beijing expats go to purchase furniture). The items were to then be consolidated into an existing order to be shipped out in a single container.Â I get into the office today and I find out that a custom made cabinet for this particular order was retrieved before we could get a proper final photo of it for the customer. So I send an email to the salesperson, our contact person at the supplier, that the customer has provided to me.
Its days like this, which remind me of the price one pays doing business in China.
Email 1) Can you please call me right away (Only had her email and not her cell number).
Reply: We have the list here already, thanks for your help.
Email 2) Please call me right away.
(Conversation takes place in Chinese – roughly translated here to English. Chinese speakers will recognize the exacted phrase used immediately)
ACF: There was a custom made cabinet in this order which was picked up before we could get a photo of it. Can you please take a photo (one with doors open and one without) of it before it ships out? This item is custom, and we need to get a photo to the customer right away, so it pretty important. Should be pretty easy to take a quick photo and email it off to me. You have my email, yes?
Salesperson: Yes, I do have your email. But this is really a lot of hassle (mafan). The cabinet has already been packed.
ACF: Has it been loaded into the container or is it just packed and sitting there (IE wrapped in cardboard)? (wondering if its really been packed or is she just saying this to avoid the trouble).
Salesperson: No, it hasn’t been loaded. Really, this will really be a huge hassle. Really. Besides, I am not at the factory today. The soonest I could do it is Monday. A real hassle!
ACF: Fine, Monday is “ok” also. I don’t need it right away.
Salesperson: Really, why do you need a photo? Its already been packed. This really is a lot of hassle. Really a hassle. Why do you need a photo? Really a lot of trouble to do this.
ACF: Because we need it for the customer. I already explained this a minute ago. It left before we could get a final photo. What if there is a problem?Â We should give the customer what’s needed and the customer’s needs always come first. This should not be a huge problem. It only takes five minutes. No big deal.
Salesperson: Really a hassle. Its already been packed. We would have to unwrap it. This really is a lot of hassle. Really a hassle. If there is a problem, its your problem. Has nothing to do with me. Its not my problem. You really are a hassle.
ACF: That’s nonsense! We ship containers all over globe and we unwrap things all the time and repack them if necessary. Its takes on a few minutes and the packing materials cost almost nothing. This should not be a problem. Its not a big deal. If the customer needs it, we just do it. This is no big deal.
Salesperson: You’re a foreigner! You can’t talk to me like this!!!! You should apologize to me right away.
ACF: What?!?! What does apologizing to you have to do with taking a photo? This is not that complicated!
Salesperson: Apologize to me right away! (starts shouting). This is your problem, not mine.
ACF: What are you talking about? Why would I need to apologize to you?!?! How is this related to the photo?
Salesperson: Because you said it was ridiculous. You are a foreigner. You can’t talk like this me. Apologize to me to me, right now! (still shouting). Apologize now – I will not give you the photo!
Salesperson: Apologize to me, now!
ACF: What?!?! Look. I need a photo. I am not going to sit here and talk with you about me being a foreigner as I have no idea what this has to do with getting a photo. And this is ridiculous. This should not a big deal.
Salesperson: (Shouting angrily into the phone – not sure what she is saying)
Salesperson: (More shouting – still not sure what she is saying)
ACF: So when the customer asks about the photo I should tell them?
Salesperson: I don’t care about them or what you tell them (shouting angrily into the phone). That’s your problem. (More shouts, no idea what she is saying but sounds like insults)
Salesperson: (More shouting, more yelling)
ACF: So, I need to explain to them that you won’t take the photo?
Salesperson: (More shouting, more yelling, more shouting, )
ACF: (hang up the phone)
Lessons to be learned
Speaking good Chinese is not always an advantage.
I have always said that sometimes being a Chinese speaker is sometimes a disadvantage. Those who do not speak Chinese stare at me in wonder when I emphatically state this. But on a day to day level, speaking Chinese allows local vendors to (for lack of a more finessed term) direct crap at you at an exponentially faster rate. For this reason, some foreign business people in China will feign a total lack of Chinese language skills in business situations (especially negotiations) in order to avoid this. The additional layer of someone in between who must translate keeps the “bull” in check and at a much more “manageable” level.
|[mÃ¡fÉ‘n] problematic, trouble, hassle|
And the more fluent your Chinese is (and the more local your accent), the more they will expect and assume you will play by local Chinese rule of interaction. In essence, they will treat you as if you were Chinese (to some extend – see next point on skin color). This may mean anything from “giving face” to expecting you to know when they are hinting for a kickback. Unfortunately no matter how good your Chinese is, thinking and acting Chinese does not come naturally to us foreigners and this is where the problems occur.Â You will never be Chinese no matter how good your Mandarin is. We will still be direct, process oriented, and more concerned about quality then “saving face.”Â
Your skin color may be thrown into the mix (and quicker then you expect).
A while back we talked about the role of rising Chinese nationalism and its effect (and potential dangers) in business in China. This post was quickly picked up by the China Law blog and was separately discussed by other foreigners as well on their own blogs as this is no an isolated occurrence.
If I were worried about one single element of doing business in China today, it wouldnâ€™t be inflation. Nor would it be the rising costs of exports due to the rapid appreciation of the yuan. Or rising fuel costs for that matter. Air pollution? Nope. The cost of labor going up would not be my main concern either. No, all of these issue seem unpleasant yet manageable, in one way or another, even if difficult. So what then pray tell would it be? Definitely it would be rising Chinese nationalism. Normally I bypass politics altogether, to focus on the furniture industry and china business – two things I think are interesting enough to keep me busy. But in many ways, I find today’s topic be quite relevant since one will effect the other.
Its amazing how quickly “being a foreigner” will be thrown into the conversation. Enough said. The rest of that post is here.
Squabbling, politics and relationship problems frequently interrupt business activities.
China has been compared to Europe on more then one occasion and the similarities are easily enough seen. Its geographically similar in size, it consists of a zillion different ethnic groups that (despite what people think) all basically speak either different languages or different dialects and in many cases even the people themselves look completely different. So during a recent conversation discussing the possibility of China eventually splitting up into an Asian “Europe” I asked what the reason behind this national obsession with “one China.” The response was, “If we are not busy fighting against the rest of the world, then we would be busy fighting amongst ourselves.” A bit like “united we stand, divided we fall.”
From this perspective it makes sense and anyone who is living, working or studying in China can tell you, Chinese people tend to have a lot of trouble getting along. Put a group of Chinese in a room together and they will very quickly divide themselves up from northerners to southerners and city folk to country folk. And will very quickly tell you the reasons why they don’t care for the other group.Â People from Beijing dislike Shanghainese (and vice versa). Office staff have trouble getting along with other colleagues, much more so then in the west which makes HR activities all the more complex. I can’t tell you how many times, I have heard staff members list off the reasons why another staff member which they dislike) is a ”
bad person.” Maybe this is the side effect of having 1.3 billion people in one place?
Either way, this causes problems in business and relationships among Chinese suppliers are no exception to the rule. Since the Chinese view business as war, then the rules of war will apply which means no supplier will help out another (unless they are allies) and may even do their best to sabotage the other.
The boss sets the tone for the entire company.
We have two saying around the office which are relevant here:
- If you want to know how the factory does business, first look at the boss.
- Assess the person’s character first, then worry about the product.
Essentially this means that the boss sets the tone for the entire company, especially in China where business are often operated as private kingdoms with the boss as the king (or queen). The product is less of an issue – whats important is how they do business. Regardless of how the boss presents themselves to you, how smiley and friendly they appear or how well they treat you the customer (and the foreigner), this is often a guise. A close look at how they handle their staff or workers will reveal a lot about character (as well as how they may handle your issue, should one arise). My first glimpse of this was years ago while visiting a customer. The boss was extremely sweet and nice to me. However, assuming I could not understand Chinese, in my presence she abused and belittled my local Chinese staff. It was not surprising that her staff followed her lead. If employees are poorly trained, unscrupulous or difficult to deal with, this is generally a sign, usually a negative one.
One word of warning here though: Be careful to distinguish between “firm” vs. pushy, “reasonable” vs. excessive and “loud” vs. rude and berating. It is true that there is a “Chinese way of doing things” which we may sometimes misinterpret. Sometimes a strong tone gets the job done, and anger may be feigned for the sake of achieving a goal.
Give “face” when needed (if you can) to get the job done
A lot has been written on the Chinese concept of saving “face,” (Mianzi) something westerners seem to have a lot of difficulty understanding. There is also debate on where the fine line between “face” and “apple polishing” lies. If you are able to give face when the situation requires, then do so, preferably without compromising your principals, though not everyone can do this (many times, myself included).
“You insulted me,” may not be what it seems.
Sometimes this is valid, as Chinese are very sensitive to any criticism (real or perceived). But other times, this is just a guise. If you look at this conversation, you will see that in the end, interestingly enough, she actually solved the problem (in her own way).
- I hung up the phone (and in her mind, stopped wasting her time).
- She didn’t need to take the photo.
- She absolved herself of any responsibility by making it clear that if there were any problems they are my fault.
- Problem solved!
The “you insulted me” is also used as either a diversion or a face saving measure when you call them on a problem. This is one reason why any time an overseas government or organization, or media outlet complains about something to do with China (quality problems, religious or political persecution etc) the response will often be that they “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people.” Hey, what about hurting the business needs of the customer?!
|Countries that have hurt the feelings of the Chinese people in black|
Needless to say, I will be following up with her on Monday for the photo.
Update (a few days later).
Customer forwards the following email (with a chuckle):