By Oliver Knack
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 a good supplier to manufacture your product, you have more options available. There are some common attributes to look for to help you make a decision. And, of course, you don’t have to date them.
While you’d be hard pressed to find any supplier that’s perfect, if you’ve found one with these five qualities, you can be confident you’ve found a relatively good one:
Admitting to a mistake can be difficult. But when your goods are on the line, it’s essential that you’re working with someone that can take responsibility for their half of a deal and actively work to fix any problems that occur during manufacturing. That’s why accountability tops the list of qualities of a good supplier.
Imagine finding untrimmed threads in 45 percent of an order of garments you’re importing. Even though this might be considered 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. If you used a third-party inspector to check the goods, the supplier might accuse the inspection company of incompetence or of being unprofessional.
Allegations of substandard raw materials or misconduct from a third-party should be investigated. But a supplier that won’t own up to their own mistakes can hinder your ability to meet deadlines and product requirements.
Look for signs of accountability in a supplier early on in your relationship. A good supplier is an accountable supplier.
2. Production capabilities
The ability to actually manufacture the product you want is one quality of a good supplier most importers are especially familiar with. In fact, many importers tend to focus so much on production capabilities of a prospective supplier that they overlook other vital considerations. But knowing with confidence what a supplier can actually deliver is harder than simply talking to a third-party supplier representative.
A good supplier should be able to consistently manufacture a product that meets your requirements. Without having the necessary procedures and skilled staff at the factory, your supplier is going to fall short of meeting your standards.
How do you know if a supplier can meet your standards?
Visiting the factory
The only way to be sure of a supplier’s production capabilities is by going to the factory. Some importers that aren’t sure what to look for or prefer to avoid the cost of traveling to the factory might rely on a third-party to audit the factory based on ISO 9001 or a similar standard. In either case, you can learn a lot about a supplier by verifying areas such as:
• Material and finished product inventory;
• Incoming quality control, in-process quality control and final quality control;
• R&D (important if you plan to develop new products);
• Machine and equipment maintenance and calibration; and
• Certifications or licensing (e.g. business license, export license)
Many suppliers will tell you they can supply the products you need. But a truly good supplier will allow you to verify claims by visiting or auditing the factory.
Obtaining and approving a product sample
This second method of verifying supplier production capabilities is less reliable than an audit, but generally easier to conduct. By requesting that a supplier send you a product sample to approve before moving ahead with mass production, you can get an idea of whether the factory can meet your product requirements. You can also send the sample to a lab for testing to confirm product standards.
You might only pay the cost of producing and shipping a sample (related: What’s the Cost to Ship a Product Sample?). And you’ll have much more assurance than simply taking a salesperson’s word for it.
3. Ease of communication
Language and cultural barriers can present real challenges for importers buying from suppliers overseas. You’ll benefit greatly from working with a good supplier that’s easier to communicate with. Effective communication can prevent a variety of problems ranging from delays to product nonconformities.
What defines “effective communication”?
This first mark of effective communication is obvious. If you don’t speak the supplier’s local language, you’ll probably want your main point of contact to be English-speaking. More and more factories are hiring sales staff with at least a basic understanding of English. While it’s rare to find a supplier with contacts that speak perfect English, more often than not, there’s someone capable enough to handle requests from customers in English.
Still, despite English abilities, misunderstandings can be very common, depending on where you’re manufacturing.
It’s often necessary to get your supplier contact on the phone to talk through product specifications and other aspects of an order to make sure all parts are understood. If you send your supplier a long, complicated email without following up, you may find they don’t understand it entirely or don’t bother to read it in full (related: 3 Ways to Improve Communication with Suppliers).
Open and direct communication
Open and direct communication is one aspect of a good supplier that few importers really appreciate. It may be reassuring to know that your supplier employs English-speaking staff. But 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? This is very common when production delays occur. You may have agreed to a particular shipping date the supplier later discovers they can’t meet. But instead of being direct and telling you right away, your contact may underestimate the delay or wait for you to ask about it yourself.
A good supplier is open and direct. They know that you may have made promises to your own customers, and 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.
Pay attention to how your next supplier communicates with you.
4. Cooperation with third-party QC
Most people don’t like to have someone looking over their shoulder and meticulously checking their work. But third-party inspection has become a fairly standard requirement for most importers good suppliermanufacturing in Asia. And a good supplier will comply with an importer’s request to have an outside inspector verify the product before it ships.
Outside oversight can actually help the factory by:
• Pointing out defects the factory’s own QC staff might have missed;
• Suggesting possible causes for any production problems;
• Recommending preventative or corrective action to solve problems; and
• Giving the customer peace of mind
A supplier’s resistance to third-party quality control is usually cause for concern. Such a supplier may be trying to hide an issue from the importer. Some suppliers will try to ship the goods quickly before you have a chance to raise concerns.
Better suppliers typically book inspections on time and provide assistance for inspectors on-site. If problems are found during inspection, they provide objective feedback about the results and advise what can be done to resolve issues. The same suppliers are also open with their internal documentation and processes when being audited.
Ethical sourcing has made its way into the spotlight. As larger brands make headlines in recent years for social compliance violations in their supply chain, countries have taken steps to outlaw goods made with forced labor (related: The U.S. Ban on Imports Made with Forced Labor).
Many importers don’t want to be associated with a product made by workers that are treated unfairly or working in unsafe conditions. By choosing to work only with good suppliers that meet popular social compliance standards you can be sure that:
• Your products are not made with slave or child labor;
• Your products are made in safe working conditions;
• Retailers you supply do not refuse to distribute your product; and
• The reputation of your brand is protected from negative press surrounding unethical sourcing
Ethics may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you’re looking for a good supplier. 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.
It’s not always easy to identify a good supplier immediately. But after some early communication, you should be able to qualify one by looking for these five traits.
Just because a supplier is convincing and shows you a few amazing product samples doesn’t mean you should overlook how they actually function. These traits will help you sort the good from the bad and help you determine if using a particular supplier is best for your supply chain, your customers and your business.
Oliver Knack is a Client Manager at InTouch Manufacturing Services, a QC firm that performs product inspections and factory audits in Asia for clients in the US, EU and Australia.