Successful Product Development with China - Communicate, Communicate, Communicate  

Author: Joy Huang

What could be more frustrating than two people talking in the same language yet not understanding each other?   Ask any U.S. company that is undertaking a joint development project with China, communication is always a top challenge. They frequently cite challenges posed by time zone differences, language barrier, lack of face - to -face meetings and cultural differences. What can you do to effectively manage this critical piece of the process?

Do Not Assume Anything.

This is easier said than done. If this is the first time you work with a Chinese company, it is only natural that you need some time to figure out where the base lines are. At the early stage, the best thing to do is to over communicate, on everything.

For example, if you do not receive a reply, do not assume that your counterpart has agreed to your proposal. A non-reply usually implies an almost definitive "No". Or, for example, when you think that "Everyone should know this because it is industry standard", you may likely be surprised to find out that your Chinese partner has a very different understanding of "the Industry Standard".   Keep in mind that the vast majority of Chinese companies are relatively new to doing joint product development with developed markets such as the U.S. Their global experiences have largely come from outside the U.S. where "business as usual" has very different meanings.

To be on the safe side, make it a rule of thumb to assume nothing. Over invest time and resources on the details that you may otherwise not with a North American partner. Once you have spent some time working closely on a set of specific issues, you will gain a better comfort level knowing where lies the boundaries, gaps and differences.

Be Specific.

Being specific is key to mitigate risks stemming from miscommunication. A U.S. telecom company working with a Chinese supplier once requested a product to have the feature of being "Omni-Directional". Omni-directional is specified as " To send and receive signals from all directions". When the prototype was completed, they discovered that though it did send and receive signals from all directions, it only did so when the product is placed in a certain way. The product manager was flabbergasted to say the least.

In this instance, language barrier played a role that partially caused the misunderstanding. Communication style difference counted for another reason. The Chinese are less inclined to ask directly for clarifications but instead would try to resolve them internally. This stems from a deep respect for "saving face". They are comfortable working with vague instructions and lend their own "creative interpretations". Their intention is try to satisfy the customer but the outcome may prove otherwise.

To mitigate risks like these, the product manager needs to provide a more detailed requirement document. He also needs to follow up via conference calls or emails to confirm that each line is well understood. And instead of waiting for months while assuming everything is fine, periodic checkups would have prevented all the lost time and wasted resources.


Making it a habit to document every meeting take-away and decision (big and small) will significantly reduce the chance of miscommunication. In lieu of face-to-face meetings, email is the next best mode of communication with Chinese in business settings. This is because most Chinese professionals have a higher degree of proficiency with written English than spoken English.   Communicating in emails allow them to take time to digest the information and vet it with others internally.

When you send the documented information, request a reply with a clear written confirmation. This does not mean that you can now sit tight and wait for things to come through though. Keep yourself involved. If you are detecting signs of potential slippage, follow up and inquire about the status of the written agreement. From the Chinese perspective, when circumstances change, deliverables should change accordingly. So be prepared to make flexible adjustments all the way throughout the process. 



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