Our Chinese partners won’t answer their emails. What should we do?

A common complaint from our British clients is that their Chinese business partners, suppliers or customers will not reliably answer their emails. This can lead to great frustration and even breakdown of the business relationship. But don’t lose your temper. Try to understand the problems and discuss them directly with your partners.

It is important to understand that expectations about business communication can vary widely between the UK and China. In order to communicate effectively it is important for both sides to be clear about these expectations.

In China it is common for business to be conducted by telephone and messaging apps such as TenCent‘s WeChat. Emails are not used extensively in most situations, including for business communications. If they are used, they are not usually expected to have the same status as signed and stamped letters. Emails are seen as something more similar to text messages—not something one would use to finalise an important contract or sales agreement.

To ensure clear communication, you should discuss modes of communication openly and explicitly with your partners. Agree a way of working and stick to it. If you are not happy with the way communication is proceeding, raise the issue with your partner, but do not lose your temper. Remember that your China business venture is only possible if it is a win-win proposition. If the business is viable then communication is just a matter of working out how to work together effectively.

For important business decisions, you should discuss things over the phone, or even better face-to-face, in order to give maximum opportunity for your partners to express reservations so they don’t change their minds later. Meetings or phone calls can be summarised by email if that is what you have agreed, but important decisions and agreements should be recorded by appropriate documentation—on paper.