When you communicate with Chinese people, you want to make sure that you make a good impression and build up the positive feeling in your business relationship. You can't understate the importance of this to Chinese people.
Communications need to be polite and positive. Here are some of my tips on good business communication with Chinese people:
Always say please and thank you. Say "I'm sorry to bother you" and "Is this an OK time to call?" In emails say "I appreciate your help, [name]".
Make your communications personal and use the other person's name. If you are speaking on the phone, it's OK to make some small talk. You can also use your name e.g. "it's Peter here calling from Norway, remember I am the one who ordered the cellphones last month?" to help the other person get to know and remember you. That will work in your favour because you will receive more personal service.
Don't tell people directly that they are wrong. Chinese people are always right. No, only kidding, but in Chinese culture if you say "you are wrong!" or even "that's not true" you are creating a conflict, not harmony. If you must disagree, use diplomatic words. If you create a confrontation situation, the cultural response for Chinese people is to shut up and cease communicating.
It's perhaps not a good habit, but if you ask Chinese people a question to which they don't know the answer, they will usually avoid saying "I don't know". So you may get a general answer, or three answers, or no answer at all. After some time you will get a feeling for when people know what they are talking about and you will learn how to get information from other people without hurting the feelings of the one who doesn't know.
When it comes to money, you need to negotiate, not demand. Always find more and more variables which can be used as discussion points and possible concessions. "Refusing to budge" or "stonewalling" means you will make the Chinese people think you are not interested in business and they will send you away empty handed.
Never raise your voice on the phone, and in an email don't USE ANGRY CAPITALS! It just won't get you anywhere with us Chinese I'm afraid!
Emailing Chinese People
Don't be too concerned if your business contact has a non-business email address e.g. "...@163.com" or "...@yahoo.cn". A lot of people use these webmail services because they are faster and more reliable than trying to access company email.
Often, if a Chinese person emails you an MS Word document with Chinese characters, you won't be able to open it. Ask them to re-send it in PDF or RTF (i.e. rich text format) and it should be OK.
It's always helpful to copy text from previous emails and include full references e.g. to invoice numbers, customer numbers, dates, etc. Your supplier may have many foreign clients handled by only a few people, and the more you can help them identify you, the more efficiently they're going to be able to help you.
Web chatting... for business
Chinese people love instant messaging like Skype, MSN, and (the Chinese network) QQ.
Don't be surprised if Chinese people ask you for your instant messaging address because a lot of people here use these systems for day-to-day business communications.
By the way, no one in China uses AOL... and Skype is still not as popular as MSN. QQ is generally only used by Chinese people, but a lot of Chinese people think it's universal so might ask you for your number.
The China country code is +86 (and Hong Kong is +852). In most countries this means you dial 0086 before the phone number.
Area codes begin with (0) e.g. Shenzhen (where Chinavasion is) is 0755, but you leave out the zero when you dial from abroad. So, the Chinavasion phone number is +86 0755 26451869 but you would dial: 0086 755 26451869
China time is GMT +8 hours for the whole of China - no complicated time zones like you Americans and Aussies!
Chinese people almost never have voicemail or answering machines.
With many office phone networks, if a line is busy and you call it, you will still hear a ringing tone. So you will think no one is answering! Yes, it is a stupid system. Be patient and try again later!
English Language in China
So, how good are Chinese people at English? Well, Chinese kids now learn English for over 10 years in their schooling, but the standards of teaching for the current generation of business people were not so great. So some of us are pretty bad at speaking, but our writing may be OK. And for others... they are just terrible all-round! If you've found a good supplier, you don't want to give up just because your contact person's English isn't perfect.
Here are some tips on how not to get frustrated:
When you are speaking, remember to speak clearly and slowly. That can make a big difference.
Give the other person time to write down information.
For Chinese people it's often difficult to use the right words to get a polite tone. For example on the phone someone may tell you "Wait!" ... which sounds rude, right? But they mean "Please hang on a moment" ... they're not trying to be rude!
In Chinese languages, the word for "he" and "she" is the same. So if your Chinese contact refers to your female colleagues as "he" please don't be too surprised - they do know she's a woman!
In Chinese there are no verb forms for tenses. That is, in English we say "I am going", "I went", "I will go" etc but in Chinese you just say "I today go", "I yesterday go", "I tomorrow go" etc. So if your Chinese contact is telling you something, and you are not sure if it already happened, or is going to happen in the future, please ask!!
As with all communications, it can't hurt to ask questions, repeat your understanding to clarify agreements, and confirm things in writing.