I don’t know if you ever had this experience. From time to time I find myself trying to get some manufacturers to agree to something they already agreed to. It doesn’t happen every day, it doesn’t happen with every manufacturer, but it happens.
Last week I wrote about a very important role a China buying agent plays in making sure the communication between the factory and the buyer is smooth and effective.
Bridging language and culture gaps are very important. But sometimes it seems that even local China buying agents run into difficulties getting consistent messages from your suppliers.
So if local China buying agents can’t get it right, why is it a cultural issue?
First, there is something you need to know about the Chinese culture
Professor Hofstede’s cultural dimensions theory talks about the effect of a culture on the values of its members.
How is that relevant? Stay with me. I promise it will worth your while.
Hofstede talks about six dimensions. Two of them are power distance and individualism.
Power distance describes the extent to which a lower ranking individual accepts and expects unequal power distribution across an organization. Specifically, higher ranking individuals holding more power than them.
Individualism (in this theory) is defined as the “degree to which people in a society are integrated into groups.” or the importance of the “I” versus the “we”.
In China, the power distance index is quite high, much like most other Asian cultures. This means that lower ranking individuals (i.e. middle management) will look to obey and follow the instructions set by higher ranking individuals (i.e. top management) in a company.
The Individualism index in China is quite low. In China, children are being taught from a very young age to seek social acceptance, live in harmony with their friends and neighbors and the importance of relationships.
OK… What does that have to do with not getting straight answers?
If your focal point in the factory is a senior person who has a lot of influence and power in his organization, then you might not experience this.
However, if your focal point in the factory is a middle management newcomer that doesn’t have a lot of influence, then they might find themselves in the following difficult situations from time to time.
Just like all of us, people like the above newcomer, try to please their customers, as getting positive feedback from a customer is often seen as an indicator of success, or at least scoring high in the customer satisfaction KPI.
When a customer asks for something (delivery date, quantity, quality, etc.), people like our newcomer are more likely to emphasize the possibility they will be able to meet the customer’s request.
They will only casually mention that there is also a possibility they might not be able to meet the customers’ request.
Sometimes they are so casual about the undesirable possibility, the customer doesn’t understand the possibility exists.
From time to time, when people like our newcomer are going to the senior management to ask for resources needed to meet a customers’ request, they don’t always get them.
That is because the senior manager is not involved in the details and may not understand why the resources are needed. To change that, our newcomer has to challenge the senior managers’ beliefs and understanding regarding what it takes to meet the customers’ request.
Are you ready? Here it comes
What happens next is something that we, as buyers are not always aware of.
The newcomer, being used to avoid challenging his supervisor, will naturally accept the refusal to allocate resources. They will refrain from jeopardizing their relationships with the top management.
Our newcomer will then break the news to the customer saying they can’t meet their request.
They will try to avoid mentioning that the reason for this is the lack of support from the top management.
This is because our newcomer wants to avoid embarrassing both their manager and the buyer. Embarrassing the buyer by saying they are not “important” enough for the manufacturer and therefore do not get the resources. Embarrassing their supervisors by telling the customer the senior management don’t understand the need for the resources and therefore do not allocate them.
So now what? I WAS told my requests will be met!
The answer to this question has a lot to do with how you handle the situation.
Before you continue, you must first make sure the above eventuality is relevant to your specific case.
If it is, then you have many ways of taking this forward, and as always the best way depends on your organizations’ circumstances and your style of doing business.
What I prefer to do in this kind of situation is help the middle management get more support from the top management. It takes more effort and time but pays in both the short and long run.
When I discuss resources with the top management, just because I represent the customer, the top management gives me more attention than they normally give their own staff. They will usually try harder to match the customers’ expectations, for exactly the same reasons I mentioned earlier.
If you decide to take this direction, in the short run you will get the manufacturer to give you the resources needed to get your order as you want it, when you want it.
In the long run, you will forge better relationships with the middle management. After all, they execute the decisions of the top management and they are the people who make decisions with regards to the small details. With time they will appreciate your help (that is if you really help them) and will help you do your own job better.