by Ashish Monga
One of the pet peeves of importers importing from China is that Chinese suppliers don’t reply to email requests for quotations or are generally slow at responding to emails.
This issue has come up in so many discussions I have had in the past that it deserves a post.
I won’t go into too much detail about why Chinese suppliers don’t reply to emails as my fellow China business blogger, Mike Michelini has done an excellent job of that in his post “Why Chinese Don’t reply to my emails”.
To summarise, there are both cultural & practical reasons as to why Chinese suppliers are slow at responding to emails or do not bother to reply at all. Mike mentions:
- Too many enquiries, very few serious ones. Many simply for benchmarking.
- Time zone differences
- Lack of organization skill, emails often get “lost”.
- Preference for face to face talk
Some other reasons I have noticed:
- Lack of Perceived Investment: Many suppliers still do not take “online enquiries” with the seriousness that a visit to China or a sourcing fair conveys. Coming down to China signifies that the importer is “Invested” in the process. In my opinion, even a “phone call” signals a higher degree of investment than an email & is a useful filtering criteria for suppliers.
- Enquiry is not specific enough: I will be writing a blog post on writing good product requirements or RFQ’s in the future, but this is a major issue with new importers. Enquiries like “I am looking to import keyboards from China” are not likely to get too many responses.
- Company No Longer Exists: A lot of the supplier entries on B2B portals tend to be outdated, especially the free ones.
- Company No Longer makes that product: It is not uncommon for small & even-medium sized factories to change production lines every few years, i.e. manufacture a completely different product & even switch industries. This is especially applicable to “assembly plants” that do little value addition to the manufacturing process.
- Quantity is simply too small for the supplier to be interested: Probably the most common reason for suppliers not responding to enquiries. Quantity is the single most important factor effecting feasibility of manufacturing operations & pricing from a factory’s point of view.
MOQ’s are in place to ensure that the manufacturing a product is feasible for a factory & hence when factories see orders with small quantities, they often do not bother to respond. In my experience, “The first order will be a small trial order, followed by large orders if the product becomes successful” doesn’t work anymore either, unless it is disguised more creatively.
- Language & Mind-set Barrier: The boss’s friend who knows some English helped him set-up an English website, however, the boss doesn’t speak any English. His friend helps him check his English emails every now & then when she comes over. The boss may have recently hired a young graduate who understands some English but he is worried that the newcomer would “steal the leads” & hence would rather wait for the friend to come over.
Getting Factories to Respond to your E-Mails
Now that we know why factories don’t respond to client emails, let’s look at some tactics we can employ to improve our response rate.
1. Drafting detailed product requirements
As I pointed out above, an email with very limited information about what a buyer wants, is not taken too seriously, as it is a sign that the client is not invested in the process, i.e. hasn’t done his own background research and hence the deal is not likely to close.
From my own experience & the data we have collected over the years, when we receive enquiries with very limited information we are normally 95% certain those enquiries are not likely to result in business as the lead is simply not ready to import yet or are at a very early stage in the process.
Being a sourcing company an importer in an early stage is not always a problem for us, as we specialise in assisting them, however, for factories this is a “poor lead”, as they do not have the time & the resources to train the buyer & get them to a stage where they are ready to import, considering that they have tonnes of other enquiries to deal with & there is no guaranteed ROI in this “training” process.
So making detailed product requirements can make a big difference to your response rate and help you stand out in the supplier’s inbox. This tells the supplier that you understand the product well & by extension the market for the product well & hence are likely to be a serious importer.
This will also help you reduce the back & forth communication with suppliers who do respond to your initial email with a list of follow-up questions.
Mastering the Product
There will be cases when you genuinely don’t know much about the product as it might be a new product you are looking to source. In such cases, try to get at least 1 or 2 quotes before sending messages in bulk to suppliers.
The first couple of suppliers will give you a lot of product info if you ask the right questions that can make you look more prepared when you connect with other suppliers.
Another benefit of this is that when suppliers feel you know the product & the industry they tend to quote you lower. If you act like a complete newbie, they are more likely to offer you higher quotes. Suppliers have a knack of identifying inexperienced importers from a distance.
Finally, this exercise would also help you understand the minor differences in the products of suppliers so that you can ensure you are comparing like for like & have a more realistic understanding of the reasons for price variances among suppliers.
2. Providing Order Details
Other than the product details, it is equally important to provide details about the “size” of the order. Every time you ask a supplier in China, for a quote, their first question would be, “what is your quantity”? If you do not provide this, they will quote based on MOQ.
Providing these details early helps ensure that there can be a match between your size & the supplier because not every supplier would be right for your order quantity.
This is especially important if your quantities are large or at least meet the MOQ, as that becomes part of your selling proposition. If your quantities are very small but you are still looking to work with manufacturers, you may want to try to more “under the radar” methods, but it does make the process a lot more tedious.
Other than the quantity, it also helps if you are upfront about your country of import, certification requirements & other important details like which incoterms do you want to be quoted for, i.e. FOB, CIF, etc.
3. Standing out as a “Hot Prospect”
Just like you are shortlisting suppliers, suppliers are shortlisting & qualifying leads too, so they can invest their limited human resources in chasing the best leads, i.e. “Hot Prospects”. So it is important you come off as a hot prospect.
So, how do suppliers define a “Hot Prospect”? A hot prospect for a supplier would be someone:
- Who is ready to buy from China “RIGHT NOW”
- Has the capital to invest to at least meet their MOQ’s
- Has great “repeat potential”
There are other factors but the above 3 are the most critical qualifying criteria. Because suppliers in most industries in China work with wafer-thin margins, “repeat-potential” is very important.
This is why the points mentioned in the previous heading are critical, as if you have product & market knowledge, you signal higher repeat-potential.
Other than approaching the supplier armed with product knowledge, you can appear as a “Hot Prospect” by:
- Approaching as a business as opposed to an individual
- Having a professional company website
- Provide a company intro: A couple of lines about your business & your previous China imports make a big difference, because new importer = low repeat potential.
4. Follow Up Phone Call
This is where “culture difference” really comes to the fore. Just because you have sent an email to someone in China, does not mean they are obligated to reply. A phone call to let them know that you have sent them an email is often needed for them to take your email seriously.
This one sample change alone in your approach to suppliers in China, can make a big difference in your response rate. Many westerners would argue that this is a sign that the supplier may be less than professional & while that may be true, this is a cultural difference & the faster you get to live with it, the easier to gets to navigate the China landscape.
If you hate making those calls, then you should get a sourcing company like ours to do it for you ;).
5. Visit China
Finally, if you are really not having luck getting responses from suppliers, or your product is truly unique & your supplier is a monopoly or worst, if it’s a state owned enterprise, visiting China & meeting the supplier personally might be the best solution.
Of course, if your budget doesn’t justify the visit then it probably won’t satisfy these suppliers MOQ’s and in that case, looking at alternate products may be a better solution.
If you look at approaching suppliers like a “sales process”, you will find that a few tweaks in your approach can make massive differences to your response rate.
As always, I would love to know more about any experiences & issues you may have had when trying to communicate with suppliers via email in the comments below.
Ashish Monga is the founder of IMEX Sourcing Services, a sourcing & Quality Control company helping people importing from China manage their costs & risks as well as develop new products. Ashish also does consultancy work in the field of international trade & import risk management. He is also the author of The Sourcing Blog, a blog focused on sourcing advice for importing from China.