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Finding buying agents in China:6 things you should know

by Steven Chow

When your import from china business grows, you need to find a buying agent to help you, but it is not easy. You do not know how and where to find an agent. There are questions such as should you sign a contract with them? If yes, what clauses to put on the contract? How can you tell if they are trustworthy? Should you use a buying agent or a buying office?

Here are 6 things you should keep in mind when selecting an agent:

1. Trust is everything

I think you would agree with me that to work with an agent or broker, trust is important. I would rather use a reliable and trustworthy but mediocre agent than someone who is capable but not reliable. Ideally, you need someone who is competent and reliable.

How can you tell if your agent or representative in China is trustworthy? In many cases, first impressions can misguide you. You can do some online research to see if there are any comments and feedback about them. Give them some trial tasks to gauge their performance. You can generally understand their work ethic by working with them a few times.

2. Contract versus verbal commitment

Some buyers think a contract is not important so they work with purchasing agents and suppliers on verbal commitment, binding by morality and virtue.

We have a caskets buyer in the US, for whom we act as a buying office. This client does not pay attention to their contracts. Unfortunately, their supplier delivered low quality products, and when their products failed to pass three quality inspections, the supplier refused the fourth inspection.

When we asked our lawyer to help, he asked to see the quality standard we had agreed to in the contract, which we did not have. The lawsuit is still ongoing. Without a properly written contract, an easy lawsuit becomes complicated.

My suggestion is to sign a detailed contract with your buying agent irrespective of how good your personal relationship is with the agent. Ask the help of lawyer to draft and review the contract.

You could also read our 3-part series on how to negotiate a contract with Chinese companies.

3. Buying offices versus buying agents

Buying offices normally have experience in more industries while buying agents often specialize in certain areas such as apparel and electronics. If your sourcing projects cover many industries, it might be better to use sourcing offices. If you deal with one product, you could work with individual agents.

Also, if your project is relatively big, it might be better to use a sourcing office as you will need many sourcing experts to work on your project at the same time.

Buying offices are normally legally incorporated companies, so if they breach the contract, you will have somewhere and someone to chase after.

A sourcing agent is often a one-man show. If bad things happen, they might disappear. So relatively speaking, buying offices are more reliable than agents.

Agents might offer low rates compared with buying offices. For small buyers, a reliable agent might be a better choice.

4. Hidden commission

It is a public secret that many sourcing agents get a commission from suppliers. But this means your buying agent and supplier become allies. The agent will not push for the best price for fear that the supplier will not happily give them a commission. They might turn a blind eye to quality issues. They might not recommend the best supplier to you, favoring instead a supplier that gives them the best benefit.

You pay your agent a decent service fee but they present to you a made-up sourcing report -- the price is not real, the factory presentation is biased and the best supplier is disregarded. All these problems are caused by hidden commissions.

These commissions are so common that suppliers often offer to give them to agents without them asking.

So how can you make sure your sourcing agent will not betray you by taking a hidden commission?

First of all, you should sign a contract with your sourcing agent clearly stating that active or passive hidden commissions are not allowed.

Second, contact other suppliers randomly and see if you get a lower price for your product.

5. Hire an expert, not a secretary

There are thousands of products global buyers are buying from China, and each product is different. Sometimes it takes months or even years to understand the production mechanism of a specific product. A competent sourcing agent should be a product expert. If he does not know the product, he will not know how to plan quality control, he will not know the costing, and cannot negotiate the price properly. He might not even know where to buy product.

That is why Li & Fung hires only sourcing experts with more than 10 years working experience in certain industries. The experience gives them the knowledge of quality control, price negotiation, product research and development. They can deliver a solution.

6. Communication is often a problem

First is the language. You should make sure your sourcing agent speaks your language well enough to understand your emails, and to draft and review an English contract. They should also be familiar with the product in your language (parameters, specification, parts and components, etc).

You need a sourcing agent who is well prepared to hit the ground running. If you are looking to build a long-term relationship with your agent, ideally the agent should be proficient in speaking, as in many cases, email is slow and you will need to call them to speed up the process.

But as a matter of fact, generally Chinese people do not speak English well, so for important matters, it is better to send an email or fax to make sure your agent understands you, and will not miss your key points after the phone call.

The efficiency of communication is an issue to look at, especially when there is a time zone difference. Your agent should reply to your emails promptly. Instant messengers can be used to speed up communication while text messaging can also be used for urgent contact.


Steven Chow is the founder of Chinawhy, which has been providing one-stop sourcing, verification, QC and shipping services in China since 2006. Read his blog or contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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