If you're making consumer electronics products, you're probably going to do business in China. We've been there for almost 5 years and in that time these are some of the things that I've learned:
Go there. There is no substitute for the relationship building exercise of spending a week or a few with your suppliers. Your projects will move faster and you'll be a more effective negotiator. The simple act of making the trip will be a signal to your contract manufacturer (CM) that you're serious. And when you go there, really go there. Go down to the production floor to observe and give feedback on how they can better meet your requirements at each step. Remember, the supplier isn't just punching your CAD and materials into some formula and out comes a product. The CM engineers are learning, and subsequently teaching the rest of the assembly line, which procedures work best. Go to your CM's vendors and comb through their sample books to see what's possible. Ask them what the most popular options are and what they're developing for the future. Often times your CM team won't be aware of what's cutting edge in a particular material or process for which they use a third-party vendor. You may end up hours away in some neighboring town but everything is available in China and the only way to find the good stuff is to go out and look for it. Get to the factory early, stay as late as the work requires and go out for dinner and drinks whenever offered. Your CM wants to build an incredible product for you that will sell millions of units so put in the effort to develop the kind of relationship in which that's possible.
Impossible rarely means impossible. Sometimes it means “we’ve never don’t that before” or “that’s going to take a lot of time and effort” but neither of those necessarily means your CM isn’t committed to meeting your requirements. If you’re working with a quality partner, they may just not want to overpromise and under-deliver, especially when something you ask for will seriously impact your cost or delivery deadlines. That being said, you are the customer, so as long as you’re reasonable in your demands, it’s possible to get what you want. In reality, be prepared to spend all day with engineers, other vendors and on the production line tweaking and re-tweaking until you have what you want. Do whatever you need to do to stay there until it gets done right. Sometimes it means working until past midnight checking component after component. Sometimes it means jumping into the factory workers’ Friday night basketball game while you wait for samples to get made. Hard work is no less respected in Chinese culture than any other – treat your partners like actual partners and they’ll be glad to put in the effort with you.
Get China. Spend the time reading up on the modern history of the world’s most populous country and stay current with what’s going on in that part of the world. There are volumes of English-language sources that will give you some insight into the national-psyche of China. When you’re in-country, venture outside the confines of your hotel and see what life is like for ordinary Chinese. Go to a mall, go to a movie, ride the metro. If you’re in CE you’re probably looking at that massive consumer market and trying to understand how to capture the attention of over a billion people - no amount of distant observation will ever amount to even just a few days of first-hand experience. Even if you’re just doing production over there and have no intent of ever selling anything in Asia, a grasp of the life and culture of your counterparts in China can only help to strengthen your ties with them.
Respect the cuisine. Just trust me on this one. In my experience, nothing will endear you more to your Chinese counterparts than breaking bread together - especially Chinese bread. You will absolutely be served dishes you’ve never seen before; get some practice with those chop sticks and bon appétit. They love their food over there and if you can at least make them believe you love it too, it’ll go a long way towards showing you appreciate their culture.
Nothing beats experience but even as a first-timer, if you can keep this advice in mind, you’ll be well on your way to building an effective partnership.