Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Communication Conundrum

After 9 years + of keeping at in China, the way communication flows here still baffles me and an area in which I constantly have to apply self-discipline.

Communication does not freely flow here.  My wife Leeds and I joke that it’s sort of the concept of squeezing the close-to-empty toothpaste tube.  You have to squeeze a little, get a wee bit, squeeze a lot and get a little.  But without a doubt if you are expecting to be freely and liberally updated, you are setting yourself up for a complete failure. 

 And when I say liberally updated, I’m not referring to something hard-to-grasp, like the status of commodity prices in another nation or the average rainfall for each continent but am referring to normal, everyday communication.   

So if receiving the smallest morsel of informative info is a pain in the keister, just think what it’s like when it comes to more in-depth and costly details.

Today’s blog was partially inspired by my friend Sasha who runs a great post with fresh China-life insight.  She’s definitely on her way to become a weathered and grizzled expat.  Sasha eloquently says in her post on dealing with China's culture shock:

You will soon learn this whole lack of communication is very much a part of Chinese culture and extends far beyond just business culture and into most aspects of Chinese life.

The Chinese didn’t and still don’t grow up with a mindset to question.  They grow up with the mindset of hearing and repeating. 

“The boss is the boss, don’t ask him.  The parent is the parent, just listen.   The (fill in the blank) is the (fill in the blanket), what can I do about it?”

Let’s say you inform your employees that communication needs to increase.  They in turn think and sometimes say “If you want me to communicate, just tell me what I need to say”… kinda defeats the purpose doesn’t it?

And since folks are so tight-lipped around here, there are constant questions floating in one’s mind:  “Do they get it?  Can they do it?  Are they cool with it?”

You may be thinking that this is because of the language, right?  No, it happens between Chinese to Chinese, funny looking foreigner with good Chinese-speaking ability to Chinese, foreigner with bad Chinese to Chinese, English to English, you name it… it just happens.  (In fact as a side note, usually the employees, suppliers, contacts with the best English are less diligent and eager.  It seems they want to slide by on their English and view it as a free pass.  For me, I’m not planning on sitting around discussing Shakespeare with you, so I don’t care if we have to use Pantomime and an ancient Peruvian mountain language, bub, I just want to get the job done, you know what I’m saying?)

(Photo Credit:  GR Sipe)
So when you’re dealing in offshore orders, a few things to remember that may save your pretty head a world of greys:

Be proactive in your communication: Especially if you’re dealing with a supplier in which you don’t have a long history…I’m talking to you promotional-product-distributors, Mr. and Mrs. every time I have a new project I’m sourcing something new… When I say proactive in your communication, I mean put the responsibility to get detail 100% on your shoulders.  Don’t assume anything. 

Response:  If a supplier doesn’t communicate about details, quality or even argue a bit on conditions, be afraid, be very afraid.  Lack of communication means something is up.  It means there is something brewing they misunderstand, didn’t quite get or just didn’t care enough to ask.  Insist upon details and in fact, even place in the sales contract the type of communication (daily emails, visuals, skype chats) you expect to receive.

Proof & Timeline:  If the supplier tells you they can’t do something, have them explain why.  If the supplier tells you they can do something, have them explain (and show) you how.  I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating:  don’t get too happy over the positive answer and don’t get sad over the negative answer.  Never trust the first report.

Also keep your own excel timelines, especially if you’ve quoted an item more than once.  Factories aren’t great at keeping track of detail, so if you are not closely watching each phase, you’ll miss the fact that the price went up a few points.  You’ll miss that a quality condition was excluded from the agreed-upon terms.  They will on purpose or inadvertently add-to and subtract from the info and of course not communicate the changes.     

If you ever get a case of the “shouldas” and catch yourself thinking, “well they should tell me this, and they should tell me that…”, then remind yourself that you are dealing with a developing nation that was closed off for thousands of years.  The workers are low paid, low educated have very little incentive to “do the right thing”.

Once you receive bad quality goods, their “shouldas” aren’t going to seem that important.

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