Our Chinese supplier won’t supply the prototype of our new product. They are not telling me what stage they are at making the new prototype, and they have missed the deadline for delivery. We need to see the prototype at an early stage, so we can support them with technical needs, and plan our marketing. They refuse to tell us what stage they are at, what should we do?

Getting prototypes or software betas from your Chinese manufacturers or developers can sometimes be a challenge. Many UK-based China business ventures run into this kind of communication problem with their partners or suppliers.

The cause is often that the expectations about prototypes have not been sufficiently clearly specified at the beginning of the relationship. Although the practice of supplying products as prototypes or at different stages of development might be well established in your industry in the UK or in other countries that you have previously worked in, you shouldn’t take for granted that these expectations are shared by your Chinese partners.

Often, when British firms ask their Chinese manufacturers to supply prototypes late in the design and manufacture process, it takes the Chinese side by surprise and they fear that the British side has lost trust in their ability to deliver the product. They may even worry that the British partner is thinking of moving to a different manufacturer.

In order to avoid this situation, it is important to anticipate what you will need to ask of your Chinese manufacturer or supplier at each stage in the process. All these requests should be openly discussed and written into the contract when the agreement is first made.

If this has not been done and you find yourself in a situation in which you are asking for prototypes that your Chinese manufacturer will not provide, then it is important to have a frank discussion with them. Ask them to tell you directly if there are problems in the product development process. Ask directly whether they are worried that you will change supplier after they have supplied the prototype. Once problems and concerns on both sides have been aired clearly then it will be easier to work together to find a resolutions for the problem.

We recommend finding a specialist from a firm such as The China Mix Ltd, who understands both Chinese and UK culture very well, and who can speak both languages to near native level. Then you can explain the whole situation to this specialist. You can ask the specialist to call your Chinese counterparts to understand what their reasons are for their behaviour, and you are likely to find the Chinese side are more willing to be frank with them than when speaking to you directly. A conference call should be organised between you, your Chinese counterparts, and the specialist, she/he can help you both to communicate frankly and effectively, to see if you can meet somewhere in the middle, and the collaboration can then continue. We normally call this specialist an intercultural business facilitator.