Remember that old T.V. show The Dating Game? A bachelorette could choose to go on a date with one of three bachelors who were hidden from view. After a brief Q&A session, the chosen bachelor was revealed and the bachelorette would join him on a date.
This process of finding and selecting a good date seems almost random, doesn’t it? Each bachelorette may have her own idea of what qualities to look for in a date and has little time to investigate her options.
Thankfully, when it comes to looking for suppliers to manufacture your product, you have more options available. And, of course, you don’t have to date them. But choosing the right supplier is almost as important as choosing a lifelong partner.
Finding and selecting the best supplier is an essential first step to managing product quality and limiting product defects in your orders (related: How Experienced Importers Limit Product Defects in 3 Stages [eBook]).
Choose the wrong supplier and you could face shipping delays, poor quality and product returns. But choose the right supplier and you’ll be on your way to quality products and satisfied customers.
What makes a good supplier? Suppliers that possess these 10 characteristics of a good supplier are a cut above the rest.
1. Accountability for quality issues
Admitting to a mistake can be difficult. But when your goods are on the line, working with a quality supplier that takes responsibility for their half of a deal can make a world of difference. That’s why accountability for quality issues tops the list of characteristics of a good supplier.
Imagine finding untrimmed threads in 45 percent of an order of garments you’re importing. Although you might consider this a “minor defect”, the number of pieces affected makes it impossible to ignore (related: 3 Types of Quality Defects in Different Products).
A supplier with accountability will take responsibility for the quality problem and work forward to address it quickly. They might offer to remove the untrimmed threads and implement stricter quality controls or revise work instructions to prevent the same defect from appearing in future production runs.
But a supplier without accountability is more likely to deflect responsibility. They might tell you the quality of the fabric was poor and difficult to work with. Or, if you used a third-party inspector to check the goods, the supplier might accuse the inspector of incompetence or unprofessionalism.
A supplier that won’t own up to their mistakes can hinder your ability to meet deadlines and product requirements. Look for signs of accountability as a key characteristic of a good supplier.
2. Production capabilities
Most importers understand the importance of looking for suppliers who can actually manufacture the product they want. In fact, many importers focus so much on production capabilities of a prospective supplier that they overlook other vital considerations.
But verifying a supplier’s production capabilities is harder than simply talking to supplier representative you found off Alibaba. A quality supplier should be able to consistently manufacture a product that meets your requirements.
How do you know if a supplier can meet your standards?
Visiting and auditing the supplier’s quality system
The only reliable way to verify a supplier’s production capabilities is to visit the supplier, either personally or through a third-party agent.
You may not be sure what to look for during a visit or may prefer to avoid the cost of traveling abroad to the factory. If so, you can rely on a third party to audit the factory’s quality management system based on ISO 9001 or a similar standard.
In either case, you can learn a lot about a supplier by verifying areas such as:
- Raw materials and finished product inventory
- Incoming quality control, in-process quality control and pre-shipment quality control procedures
- R&D capabilities (important if you plan to develop new products)
- Machine and equipment maintenance and calibration
- Certifications or licensing (e.g. business license, export license)
Many suppliers will tell you they can supply the products you need. But the best suppliers will allow you to verify claims by visiting or auditing their factory.
Obtaining and approving a product sample
This second method of verifying production capabilities is less thorough than an audit but generally easier to conduct. You should ideally audit your suppliers and review product samples before mass production.
Ask your supplier to send you a product sample for your approval before moving ahead with mass production. This helps you confirm whether the factory’s production output matches your product requirements. You can also send the sample to a lab for testing for further confirmation.
Golden samples are relatively inexpensive—you’ll typically just pay the production and shipping costs of one or several units. And if you’re working with a third-party inspection company, they can often review samples for you locally to save time.
3. Expertise in your product type and target market
A supplier is more likely to be familiar with common quality issues related to your product if they have experience manufacturing a similar product. They’re more likely to be able to identify and fix problems proactively before those problems affect a large portion of the order.
If the factory is experienced in exporting to your target market, they’ll also be relatively familiar with your quality and legal requirements. You might be able to verify where some suppliers export by checking their Alibaba profile.
Most factories only specialize in manufacturing a single product type or category. A supplier that claims to manufacture a wide variety of different products is mostly likely a trading company or vendor, not a factory.
Asking the following questions can help you vet prospective suppliers’ experience with your product and market:
- Where does the supplier export the majority of their products to?
- Is the supplier familiar with legal requirements and regulations in your target market?
- Does the supplier have a reliable network of sub-suppliers for raw materials, production inputs and components for your product type?
- Does the supplier hold industry-specific certifications for your product type?
Buyer references can help you verify a supplier’s previous experience. But you might find prospective suppliers unwilling to provide preferences.
This is not uncommon in China due to buyer confidentiality clauses. But it can be helpful if a prospective supplier can provide reliable references with customers’ contact information.
4. Culture fit: the best suppliers are willing to work with you
The “ideal” supplier is rarely the same for every importer. A manufacturing giant like Apple will have different standards for their suppliers than a first-time buyer that sells on Amazon.
Some suppliers might be more inclined toward developing new products. Others might prioritize reducing their environmental footprint. The key is to find a supplier whose goals align with yours.
You can evaluate culture fit with potential suppliers by asking:
- What kind of companies do they typically work with?
- What is their minimum order quantity (MOQ)?
- What do they know about your business?
- How detailed is their quote? Have they taken time to tailor their quote to your specific requirements?
Culture fit is particularly important for smaller buyers or those with custom requirements. Some large suppliers will simply be unavailable to smaller importers, due to minimum order quantity requirements.
And even if larger suppliers accept your business, they might prioritize other orders ahead of yours, likely leading to frequent production delays.
Suppliers with a customer profile similar to your business will be better equipped to meet your requirements. A willing to work with you and prioritize your requirements is a vital characteristic of a good supplier.
5. Ease of communication
Language and cultural barriers can present real challenges for importers looking for suppliers overseas. You’ll benefit greatly from working with a supplier that’s easy to communicate with. Effective communication can prevent a variety of problems ranging from production delays to product nonconformities.
What defines “effective communication”?
This first mark of effective communication is obvious. You’ll probably want your supplier’s main point of contact to speak English if you don’t speak their local language.
It’s often necessary to call your supplier contact to discuss product specifications and other aspects of an order to ensure understanding. If you send your supplier a long, complicated email without following up, you may find they don’t entirely understand it or don’t bother to read it in full (related: 3 Ways to Improve Communication with Suppliers).
It’s quite common for factories to hire sales staff with at least a basic understanding of English. While it’s rare to find a supplier with contacts that speak perfect English, there should be someone capable enough to handle customer requests in English.
A supplier without English-speaking staff probably doesn’t work with many international customers or export to foreign markets.
Open and direct communication
What makes a supplier easy to communicate with isn’t just their ability to speak English. Communication problems often arise from the way a supplier communicates, rather than language difficulties.
Have you ever worked with a supplier that withheld information from you because it wasn’t what they thought you wanted to hear?
For example, you may have agreed to a shipping date the supplier later discovers they can’t meet. But instead of directly notifying you right away, your contact may understate the delay or wait for you to ask about it yourself (related: 3 Cultural Barriers You Must Face for Effective China Quality Control).
The best suppliers are open and direct. They know you may have made promises to your own customers. And they know it doesn’t help to keep you in the dark about a bad situation.
If there’s a change to the status quo, they tell you upfront. If they need clarification about requirements, they ask for it.
6. Cooperation with third-party QC
Third-party inspection has become a standard requirement for most importers manufacturing in Asia. A quality supplier will comply with an importer’s request to have an outside inspector verify the goods before shipment.
A supplier’s resistance to third-party quality control is usually cause for concern. Some suppliers will try to ship the goods quickly before you have a chance to raise concerns. Such a supplier may be trying to hide an issue from the you.
Outside oversight can actually help the factory by:
- Pointing out defects the factory’s own QC staff might have missed
- Improving their customer relationships by ensuring product quality before shipment
- Clarifying product requirements and inspection expectations, preventing customer returns and chargebacks
The best suppliers typically book inspections on time and assist inspectors on site. If problems are found during inspection, they provide objective feedback and advise how to resolve issues.
The same suppliers are also open with their internal documentation and processes during audits (related: 4 Keys to Smoothly Introduce Third-Party Inspection to Your Factory).
7. Ethical compliance
Ethical sourcing has made its way into the spotlight. As larger brands have made headlines in recent years for social compliance violations in their supply chain, countries have taken steps to outlaw goods made with forced labor.
Many importers don’t want to work with a factory that treats their workers unfairly or maintains unsafe working conditions.
By choosing to work only with the best suppliers that meet popular social compliance standards, you can verify that:
- Your products are not made with slave or child labor
- Your products are made in safe working conditions
- Your production timelines won’t be delayed by labor unrest, disasters and factory shutdowns
- Your retailers won’t refuse to distribute your products
- Your brand’s reputation is protected from negative press surrounding unethical sourcing
Ethics may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for suppliers. But it’s not difficult to audit a supplier or prospective factory for social compliance. And disregarding ethics entirely could lead to problems down the road for your business.
8. Regulatory compliance
Aside from ethical compliance, importers need to ensure their supplier complies with laws in both their manufacturing country and their target market. Failing to ensure regulatory compliance can otherwise lead to legal consequences for you and your business.
A factory audit and credit check can help you verify a factory’s legitimacy when looking for suppliers. Checking whether the supplier has a valid business license and export license can help you avoid working with a factory that’s operating illegally.
But you may be subject to other laws if you import certain products. Clear evidence of regulatory compliance through accreditations can be one of the most important characteristics of a good supplier.
Some common market- or product-specific regulations and certifications to verify include:
- FCC Declaration of Conformity, Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and Conformité Européenne (CE) for electrical and electronic equipment
- Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) for food, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics
- General Certificate of Conformity (GCC) for any non-children’s product subject to a U.S. consumer product safety rule
- Children’s Product Certificate for all children’s products subject to S. children's product safety rules
- Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation for packaging materials and components
It’s a great idea to ask potential suppliers for previous test reports and certificates as evidence of their compliance. You might also consider arranging independent product testing for a supplier’s samples to further verify compliance where applicable.
9. Clear and comprehensive recordkeeping
Do you think your quality standards and requirements will remain static throughout your entire relationship with a supplier? Probably not. Importers often adjust AQLs and quality requirements based on known quality issues, customer requirements and history with the supplier.
The best suppliers proactively update their records and information to seamlessly implement changes. Important information for your supplier to keep organized and continually updated includes:
- Quality standards, including known quality issues, defect classifications and performance standards
- Product specifications and requirements, including dimensions, colors and materials
- Packaging requirements, including labels, shipping markings and retail printing files
- Regulatory requirements, including any changes in legislation and standards
Maintaining clear and updated quality records is one of the key tenets of ISO 9001 certification. If an audit verifies the supplier has clear documentation policies, this is a strong indicator you’re working with a quality supplier.
Keeping information updated isn’t only your supplier’s responsibility. It’s also your responsibility to clearly outline new requirements to your supplier. But the best suppliers are well organized and proactively update and document new requirements internally.
10. A proactive attitude towards continuous improvement
This last quality is probably the hardest to find among overseas suppliers. But it’s also one of the most valuable if you’re serious about maintaining a long-term, high-volume relationship with a supplier.
At the very least, a quality-conscious supplier should have an established quality management system (QMS) that complies with ISO 9001. You can verify this through a factory audit when verifying production capabilities.
But suppliers oriented towards continuous improvement will go above and beyond ISO 9001 certification to reduce waste and improve efficiency in their operations. They implement a number of lean manufacturing, mistake proofing and process control techniques.
The vast majority of manufacturers for low-cost consumer products won’t adopt lean manufacturing techniques on their own. But conducting a process audit can help you identify root causes for product quality issues and then work with your supplier to fix them.
Finding a supplier can be one of the toughest, most stressful parts of sourcing a product. It’s important to find a supplier that is easy to work with and will give you the best possible product. But what are the best qualities to look for?
Communication, willingness to work with you, profile statistics, price and quality of the supplier are all important boxes that need to be checked before you pick a supplier.
Just because a supplier shows you a few amazing product samples doesn’t mean they can live up to those promises for mass production. Considering these ten characteristics of a good supplier will help you determine whether a particular supplier is best for your supply chain, your customers and your business.
Editor’s note: This post was originally published in April 2016 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.
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