11 tips on how to sell to China

China is the world’s largest economy and at the same time, the world’s fastest growing consumer market. The opportunities are enormous – but the job of selling to the Chinese is complex, both culturally and logistically. Here are a few pointers on cultural awareness for newcomers to the market who want to sell to China.

Top tips on how to sell to China

1. China is an enormous and diverse country and different regions have different cultural characteristics. If you want to sell to China you will need a local contact to make introductions and help you to understand the regional cultural differences and establish relationships with the right partners. An English-speaking Chinese lawyer is essential, as is an English-speaking negotiator, assuming you don’t speak Mandarin.

2. Business in China revolves around guanxi, one’s network of personal relationships. Chinese executives spend a great deal of time cultivating guanxi, by networking, dining out with colleagues, gift-giving and business social events. Guanxi is no substitute for a solid product but it is essential in order even to get a foot in the door.

3. Chinese buyers in B2B markets want to see a track record. Emphasise your work in China in the past, with well documented case studies, and your experience in working with companies like the one to which you are trying to sell. This, hand in hand with developing guanxi, will help to build trust.

4. When making a sales pitch, control your emotions. Be respectful and diplomatic. Do not be over-enthusiastic; a demeanour of calm professionalism is better than gushing about your product. If there is any disagreement, explain your position carefully rather than arguing.

5. When truing to sell to China learn to negotiate the Chinese way. Come prepared with a strategy and negotiator in a team, as the Chinese do. The Chinese are skilled buyers and will sometimes use a process of attrition to get the price down, coming up with one objection after another in the hope that the other side will end up exhausted and cave in. You need to be polite but firm and try to get the buyer to move closer to your position without causing them to lose face. Do not agree to a date for a contract signing ceremony (an important step when trying to sell to China) until all details of the contract have been worked out.

6. Barriers to entry or success in the Chinese market are often simple. Not having a website in Mandarin, for example, or being unable to provide Mandarin-speaking customer support, or only accepting payment by credit card, which is not yet widespread in Chinese e-commerce. The various Chinese versions of PayPal are more widely accepted by consumers. Any Mandarin website needs to be hosted within the Chinese government firewall and needs to be searchable on Baidu, China’s answer to Google.

7. Any email sales correspondence needs to be personalised and relatively formal. E-shots are not highly regarded. An email making an initial introduction, attaching some well-presented company information and serving as a prelude to setting up a meeting is ideal. The goal in selling to Chinese customers is to build a relationship, as you will get nowhere without this.

8. Foreign products are seen by Chinese consumers as prestigious – but also of higher quality than Chinese-made products, to the extent that some less scrupulous Chinese manufacturers create labelling in English and logos that are almost identical to foreign brands. Consumer demand for prestigious overseas brands is such that a new term, Hai Tao, has developed, meaning ‘overseas purchases’. But Chinese buyers are demanding. They expect prompt delivery and strong training and after-sales service, in B2C and B2B markets. This is when a local presence in China is particularly valuable.

9. A flexible, patient and listening approach is essential. Chinese buyers like to be listened to; they want you to understand their needs rather than simply talking at them. Listening to another person in China is a sign of respect. When you are making your sales pitch, you can make all the promises the buyer wants to hear about track record, after-sales support, packaging, training and so on – but take time to allow them to voice their concerns. Don’t talk at people and remember that Chinese buyers are more interested in what you do than what you say.

10. Conferences and exhibitions are a good way of connecting with Chinese customers. A presence at an exhibition demonstrate your commitment to the Chinese market. It’s a way of starting to build relationships with potential customers and an environment that Chinese buyers take seriously as a chance to compare products and offerings.

11. Have a social media presence but tailor it to the Chinese market. Facebook and Twitter are blocked by the Chinese government, although LinkedIn is not. To succeed in building a social media image, you need to work with China-specific sites like WeChat, for messaging, social media and mobile payments, and Sina Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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