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It's not about the money

by Jacob Yount in 'JLmade Blog'

Production problems, sourcing issues or timing delays are not always directly related to dollars and cents.

Many importers, quality managers, and grizzled “foreign” exporters such as myself may not share the same sentiment; according to them the Chinese manufacturer is always working to slight their customers, have ulterior motives and are purposefully deceitful.  I’m not saying there are not "ethics" issues;  believe me this is not my first rodeo and I’ve seen more wild and whacky China scenarios than most will ever see in their home countries or abroad.

But I’m of the opinion that the majority of Chinese manufacturing errors come from cultural misunderstandings, barriers and reactions to what they consider to be a "problematic" customer.

It’s not always a money thing.  In manufacturing promotional products, we do a lot of smaller-volume runs, thus, my company may at times, be a very small buyer to the factory.  But aside from the normal problems, many times we get preferred treatment.  We get preferred scheduling on production lines, leading to preferred delivery times.  Factories will go out of their way to placate us to help fix quality errors, without extra cost.

How and why?

A large portion of our favor, is that we’re over 90% Chinese-staffed and Chinese to Chinese dealings many of the times will obviously eliminate the quality, production and timing problems that are results of weird cultural interactions.

What do I mean about weird cultural interactions?

Direct Questions & Requests:

In China a direct request is considered over eager, too demanding, the requestor concerns about being perceived as ignorant (thus why in a meeting nobody dares ask a question) and the list of bad things it is considered goes on and on.

Imagine how this can play out in to your manufacturing.

I’ve seen a factory, instead of telling us “we lost your artwork, please resend it”, they attempted to recreate the entire electronic file from a printed piece of paper they had.  Needless to say, it was disastrous.

They prefer to exert a mountain of effort instead of making a simple request.

And consider when your balance payment is due.  In the promotional product industry, delivery time is as golden as quality and many times the balance payment is the key for the vendor to release the goods.  But more times than not, your vendor will be too shy or bashful to say something as direct as….

“To ship your goods on time, we need your balance payment by such and such date”.

They won’t say this.  They will allude to when the order is finishing, they may hint towards payment, but it’s very difficult for them, in plain direct talk, to let you know what needs to be done.  They’ll compromise the delivery time over this point.  How many orders were delivered late and sat at the factory pick-point, completed and packed, simply because of late payment?

(a side note, be on top of your own payment.  The vendor will tell you at the last minute and even after you make it, it could take 2 or 3 days to arrive to their China bank account.  You know you got an urgent order ready to ship, no excuse in not being prompt with your payment).

Both sides not understanding each other over email, perhaps leading to offense:

They are worried about offending you!  Think about how many delays and production issues could’ve been avoided but instead of someone proactively attacking a detail, the office sits around scratching their heads hoping the buyer will forget about the problem or the problem, the big mysterious vapor of a force, will go back from whence it came.
After my close-to-a-decade of living, “taking the ol’ bull by the horns” is not a cultural trait of the land of China.

Not communicating enough and communicating too much:

Are you a messy buyer?  Do you send multiple emails for a few days and then days go by without any news at all?  Are your emails clear and pointed or do you send blobby paragraphs on some messages and then another message will have one cryptic sentence that looks more like a tweet than a professional email?

Vendors, who are already dealing cross-language and cross-culturally will naturally gravitate away from this type of buyer.  Even if your project is lucrative, if you are messy, hard to organize and to figure out what in the world you are talking about requires a ton of deciphering, the vendor will prioritize as low importance.  Once you have open orders on the table and you still function in this erratic, email-flinging, inconsistent behavior, this will affect your quality because issues will be overlooked and key-points misunderstood.

Boldification of the Lil Emperor:

A buyer expresses a need with a sales person;  usually a 20-something “Little Emperor”.  That sales person needs to get their production line’s butt in gear but to do so, he’s got to go through a hierarchy of production line master (engineer) and perhaps a few other managers.  Said sales person is young, doesn’t want to rock the boat and appear too eager (see above), thus causing a loss of face for all parties.  He prefers to let your known quality issue to slip through the cracks than to make a stink over it with many people.  Not malicious in intent and to him, he’s got a strong cultural reason in doing what he does.


After moving to China in 2001 and starting JLmade in 2004, Jacob Yount has a few things he'd like to share. He blogs on China-business life, manufacturing and management. Jacob's production focus is branded merchandise, promotional products and retail gifts. Contact Jacob at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or find him on twitter.

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