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.
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.