Though it may not appear so at first glance, quality control and by extension Chinese manufacturing are very much relationship-centered businesses. Buyers of Chinese products would be well served to look beyond the sample room of their prospective factory and try to assess the potential for a lasting relationship before placing an initial order.
In the course of working with many Western buyers and their suppliers, we’ve found that some quality issues persist unresolved mainly because a mutual respect and understanding is lacking in the relationship. Below we’ve listed some characteristics that buyers should look for when trying to find a Good Chinese Supplier.
Based on over 12 years of personal experience working with Chinese factories and US-based buyers, I can tell you that the number one factor as to whether or not you’ll have a successful relationship with your supplier: their ATTITUDE.
Attitude encompasses a few different characteristics of a Chinese supplier. The most important of these is a willingness to get you the answers you need, and find solutions to ensure you receive a high level of service. Closely related to this is the interest level that the factory has in doing business with you. Interest level is affected by various factors, including the supplier's size (compared to your company's size), leadership, client-base and target market. Try to assess how important your business will be to the factory in terms of their total revenue – this will be a very good indicator of the suppliers level of interest in doing business with you.
It does not take a China-manufacturing expert to make a determination regarding a supplier's attitude and interest in doing business with you. This trait should be evident in each communication that you engage in with the supplier. For example:
- Is the supplier responsive by email, always replying within 24 hours?
- When the supplier does not have an immediate answer to your question; do they consistently follow-up to get you the information you need?
- Do you feel, based on your communications with the supplier, as if you are a priority for them? Or do you feel as if you are clearly not number one on their list?
By asking yourself these questions you should be able to determine if the supplier you are working with is taking the right attitude toward your business. If you can't determine this you can enlist a China Manufacturing Expert to provide you further guidance
2. Transparency and Honesty
Of course trust and honest are essential to all relationships, business and personal. Working with a Chinese supplier is no exception to this. If your supplier creates unrealistic expectations, withholds important information, or otherwise misrepresents itself to you, it may be time to evaluate other suppliers.
An honest supplier will not only be able to provide references upon request, but will offer them readily. If the supplier is proud of the work they’ve done for their other clients and encourages you to contact them, this is an encouraging sign. When following up on their references, I encourage buyers to inquire about any quality or service issues they encountered previously, and how the issues were rectified. This information will give you a good idea of the kinds of issues that may arise during the production of your products, as well as the factory’s level of responsiveness in resolving them.
In a similar vein, any supplier should be able to make a quick comparison between their previous manufacturing projects and the project you are interested in initiating. If the supplier has never previously attempted or been unsuccessful with a project similar to yours and is up-front with this information, make a mental note: this supplier may not be the right fit for your current project, but they should be considered for other projects due to their transparency.
Buyers should also be wary of any supplier that tries to obscure its relationships with other entities such as agents, trading companies, or subcontractors. Unwillingness to clarify these relationships or the impact they will have on the level of quality or service a buyer will receive should be an immediate red-flag.
Finally, an honest supplier will not object to a 3rd party inspection of their facilities or their products. Even if a supplier appears to be incapable of a dishonest word according to what I’ve already covered above, refusing 3rd party inspection services is highly discouraging. Buyers should make clear their intentions as far as 3rd party quality control with suppliers as early as possible for this reason. Offering references, past quality issues and solutions, and making clear distinctions between their trading partners can all be called into question if there is a strong resistance to verifying all of that on-site with the help of a neutral 3rd party.
3. Focus on Quality
Like with most other important dimensions of a business relationship – prices, delivery dates, communication, etc – buyers have to see eye-to-eye with their suppliers on quality. If you cannot find common ground regarding the level of quality your products require, you probably have not found the right Chinese supplier for your project.
Western buyers often require a high level of quality when purchasing products from China. If quality is not made a top priority by the buyer and supplier alike, its likely that the products will never leave the shelves – and worse, may end up being recalled for safety hazards.
When assessing a supplier’s focus on quality, an easy first step is to evaluate their samples. Request samples of products as similar to yours as possible – even if they are not the same item, try to review samples that are made using the same materials or processes that your own items will require. If the samples seem to be of high quality, it’s a good indication that the factory is capable of producing your items.
Even if the samples are of absolutely outstanding quality, it behooves any buyer to dig a little bit deeper into the supplier’s actual commitment to quality. The best way to do so would be to review the factory’s internal quality control documentation and procedures. Request an organizational chart and determine if there is a distinct set of staff dedicated to quality control activities. This QC team should report to a quality manager of some sort. Beware of any conflicts of interest apparent in the organizational chart! For example, a quality manager should not report to (or also have the responsibility of) the production manager.
Quality control documentation should include clear testing standards for materials as well as finished products. If lab testing is performed on-site or by a 3rd party, the supplier should be able to produce testing reports with ease. Clear reference materials for QC personnel should include quality control checklists, lists and visual aids of known defects, and procedures for how to document and handle non-conforming items and materials.
It may be difficult for western buyers to verify the points in this section firsthand. However, some 3rd party quality control firms offer factory audit services that routinely perform these kinds of quality systems checks in great detail.
Good communication is absolutely essential when working with a Chinese supplier. This may seem highly obvious, but you’d be surprised how many western buyers accept only the bare minimum in communication from their suppliers.
As always, communication is a two way street: buyers should not only expect their suppliers to be highly responsive to their questions, but also reciprocate this when the supplier has a question or suggestion. A good supplier will have a quick turnaround on emails. When your supplier needs to relay urgent information, it is encouraging if they contact you by phone or on Skype rather than email. Likewise, if you have a pressing question for your supplier they should be reachable by phone.
Regular and speedy communication doesn’t mean much if its difficult to understand. Clarity in communication is paramount, especially when a language barrier likely exists between you and your supplier. In today’s global economy its much more likely that you can find a supplier that speaks English proficiently, so its important that your supplier is able to speak to you in plain English. Lingo and industry terms vary from company to company, so they absolutely vary between the western world and China. It is encouraged that buyers find a supplier who either uses familiar lingo, does not use any lingo at all, or is willing to adopt the client’s preferred terms for materials and manufacturing processes etc.
A final point on clarity of communication: where words fail, images often succeed. As above, this is something that should not only be expected from a good supplier, but should be reciprocated by buyers as well. Using annotated images, diagrams, and other visual aids will aid communication tremendously. Text chatting via Skype or email, and even phone calls, can be woefully inadequate when discussing the severity of defects among other things. A good supplier will readily include or request visualizations during these discussions.
Finally, knowing that your factory is experienced in making if not your exact products, then similar products – or at the very least items that use similar materials and processes – is very important. A good supplier will be able to show you concrete examples of their manufacturing experience as it relates to your specific project.
As noted earlier, references should always be requested if they are not readily offered. A capable supplier will be more than happy to show you samples of products within your category that they have made previously, and connect you with satisfied clients as well. If a supplier has met the needs of prominent brands in similar product categories, it is likely they can do the same for you.
Make sure that your supplier is also aware of the quality, testing, and safety standards that are enforced in your intended market of sale. If a factory has only produced goods for Middle Eastern Markets, they may not be familiar with the product testing requirements in Ireland. A trustworthy supplier will be upfront with you about their knowledge of your markets, and will be able to show you examples of products that they have produced for the same markets.
You should inquire about a supplier’s experience at all levels, and not just strictly related to your products or markets. Try to ascertain how long the current factory management has been in place. If members of the management team are relatively new, they should be able to explain what their previous work experience is and why they are qualified to oversee production of your items. Many Chinese factories have to deal with very similar issues, such as employee turnover around the Chinese New Year holiday. Try to gauge your contact’s experience in dealing with these kinds of problems.