By Gary Huang
Did you know that one of the best tricks of the trade when contacting Chinese suppliers is to use an app called WeChat?
I’ve created a quick guide to using WeChat to communicate with Chinese suppliers even if you’ve never been to China and cannot speak Chinese.
What is WeChat?
WeChat is an app developed by Tencent and it is the #1 app in China. It has over 1 BILLION active user accounts. That number is 3 times the US population. So to say that it is widely used is an understatement.
WeChat is like a combination of Facebook, Messenger, Whatsapp, Apple Pay, and Uber wrapped in one.
You can use it to contact your friends in China and perhaps more importantly your Chinese suppliers! Here’s a glimpse what I use WeChat for when contacting suppliers:
- Chat with suppliers to get quick answers to my simple questions
- Monitor order production progress at the factory
- Make free phone calls to my suppliers in China
- Make free VIDEO calls to show them problems or modifications I have with my product
- Share pictures or videos
- Send money to pay for samples
- Build Guanxi with my suppliers by building relationships with them away from “work”
Who uses WeChat?
If we look at the 1 billion active weChat accounts as of 2019, virtually EVERYONE I know and meet in China has a WeChat account. This includes adults, students, kids, and seniors.
Yup even grandma and grandpa are on WeChat eagerly looking to video call their favorite grandchild.
Many other apps are linked within WeChat so you can hail a taxi, pay your phone bill, and even get lunch delivered to you… all within the WeChat ecosystem.
So given the above, this means your Chinese supplier definitely is on WeChat and most likely is using it 24/7.
Why should you use WeChat?
My favorite thing about WeChat is its speed.
Communications are done much FASTER on WeChat than over the phone or email. This is because in China everyone has their smartphone within arms reach. So you will get much quicker replies because your suppliers phone will buzz and it’s socially acceptable in China to check their phone during a meal and even in the middle of a conversation. This is one of the main cultural differences between China and the West that you can get to work in your favor.
Secondly, I love how easy and convenient it is to use WeChat. Unlike most Chinese websites and apps, WeChat has a simple and clean interface. It’s super easy to use once you get it setup.
Besides chatting, you can also send pictures and videos to your suppliers. Often times if a problem arises with a product, I quickly snap pictures with my phone and sent it to my supplier. Within seconds they can see it and reply you.
Obviously this doesn’t mean that they will solve the problem right away but at least the information is communicated and in their hands.
And it’s a lot easier to follow up over WeChat than over email because many Chinese people live and breathe WeChat. WeChat is always on mind since their social circle of family, friends, and acquaintances are all there.
Even during holidays such as Chinese New Year, when suppliers are away from their desks, they will still be checking WeChat without fail so you can still reach them if needed.
Another benefit to WeChat is that the tone is more CASUAL than email or telephone. For non-native English speakers where English is a second language, writing a letter or email in English can be stressful and intimidating.
They may overthink things, worrying about saying the wrong thing. Or go through analysis paralysis and go radio silent!
Or they may be dealing with a family issue and not check their emails for some time.
But on the other hand using WeChat to write a couple of lines of texts makes it a lot easier for them to speak more FREELY than over email.
Moreover, the tone is a lot more casual and often times I check my suppliers Moments (similar to Facebook News Feed) to learn more about their hobbies, their kids, and their passions so I can build guanxi and a better relationship with them away from work.
For example I would wish them a happy chinese new year, a great weekend, a happy birthday, congratulate them on becoming a parent, etc. This adds to the relationship and Guan Xi.
How can you use it to contact suppliers?
- One on One chat – to chat directly with your suppliers for questions and answers, sharing pictures, PDFs, etc.
- Group chat – chat with multiple people at once. For example you can invite your team members, a 3rd party inspector, or a freight forwarder to join in to quickly problem solve together.
- Share files – Makes it easy to share PDFs, videos, pictures, and more
- Free calls – You can place free international calls over WeChat. For example while traveling I’ve gotten great call quality calling my Chinese suppliers over WeChat from the US, Japan, and other countries.
- Video Calls – Several of my readers have used WeChat to take a virtual video tour of the factory over a WeChat video call. I also like to use this to show my supplier when I’m making modifications to products, to packaging designs, and anything else where a picture says a thousand words.
- Send Red Packets (Hong Bao) – Side note in Chinese tradition a “Hong Bao” or red packet is essentially a small cash gift given to friends and family. For example when I got married in Shanghai a few years ago, rather than having a wedding registry typical in the US which is unheard of in China, our friends and family all gifted us “Hong Bao” filled with CASH. Be aware however than nowadays, giving Hong Bao among business acquaintances is not encouraged with policies against graft and corruption in China.
Where do I get WeChat?
You can download it for free from your app store. There’s a version that works for Apple, Android, and all other platforms I’m aware of.
To get started you will need to input your real name and telephone number.
Also there’s a desktop app as well but I believe you will still need to use your phone to get started.
WeChat Best Practices
- Download WeChat and signup for a weChat ID. Then you can ask your supplier for their WeChat ID and request to add them as a friend. Often times your supplier will proactively take the conversation from Alibaba or Email to weChat so you can be ready and save time.
- Use it to ask quick questions and to quickly problem solve
- The Translate function can be used to translate messages from Chinese to English (and vice versa) within the app
- Use it to follow their moments so you can learn more about your suppliers out of the office and build a friendship and relationship “Guanxi”
What are the downsides of WeChat?
- WeChat makes it very hard to save your message history. So if you have any important contracts, orders, or any other important communications you want to keep a record of, I recommend you get it in writing or at least over email so you have record of it beyond WeChat.
- If you lose your phone or WeChat ID it’s very hard to recover your account and retrieve your message history
- Privacy – Assume it doesn’t exist 🙂
In summary, WeChat is a great way to quickly communicate with Chinese suppliers and contacts. It’s free, easy to use, and can break down a lot of communications barriers that are common when doing international business.
However it’s not a magic bullet and you still need to be vigilant with your communications and follow up as you’re working with your suppliers.
Now it’s your turn. If you’re using WeChat, I’m curious what’s your #1 tip to use WeChat to communicate with Chinese suppliers?
PS: I’m testing out a new 80/20 Sourcing WeChat group. If you’d like to join pls scan this QR code with your WeChat app.
The views, opinions and images in this article are purely the author’s own. Global Sources does not own responsibility for what is presented in the article.
Gary Huang is an American based in Shanghai, China, and working in sourcing since 2008. He is the creator of 80/20 Sourcing, which helps small business importers quickly and efficiently source from China. Gary also serves as the Co-Chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai’s Supply Chain Committee. You may contact him at www.8020sourcing.com/contact.