WOW, lead paint on a children’s giveaway toy. WOW, a computer mouse that can seriously shock the user. It seems that every new day brings a wave of product recalls and safety alerts in regard to product coming from China. Promotional product importers and distributers are just as susceptible as retailers to the disastrous effect on business and reputation that distributing a dangerous product will bring. As more of us in the promotional product industry deal with China suppliers on a daily basis, the following strategies can serve as a guide to ensuring you receive only the highest quality product from overseas.
10. Find Out Who You’re Working With – When you’re buying product from China it’s often hard to tell if you are working with a factory, a trading company, or something in between. When it comes to product and quality issues it is key that you know exactly who you’re working with, and that the relationship is transparent to all parties. If you are not working with the factory directly and the supplier can not provide you satisfactory answers about the product, then they are inhibiting the sourcing process for you and you should reconsider the relationship. If you’re having a tough time putting your finger on who you’re working with you should contact a company specializing in China Supplier Verification.
9. Send Short Emails, Sweet and to the Point – I have great respect for how much English the local Chinese staff uses having never lived in an English-speaking country. However, from my experience doing business in China for over 7 years, I will tell you that your China-based supplier most likely understands only about 50% of what you write in emails. Keep this in mind the next time you start a long-winded explanation or suggestion to an overseas supplier. English is not this person’s first language. Keep your emails simple and your directions clear.
8. How To Pay Chinese Suppliers – Wire Transfer (W/T) or Letter of Credit (L/C)? – Having a safe and well-communicated payment arrangement in place before you place your order is beneficial to both parties and one of the parameters to a relationship that encourages quality. Unless you have a long-standing relationship and trust with your supplier, then L/C should always be your preferred method of payment. If you haven’t used a L/C before then contact your bank’s business department for assistance.
7. Reduce Costs and Headaches with a 3rd party Quality Check (“QC”) – Working with a 3rd party QC company in China allows you to draw on the experience of firms whose entire mission is to ensure a products quality meets certain standards. These companies provide services such as product inspection, factory auditing, and lab testing. The service is usually available at a fixed rate which can offer a great value relative to the total cost of your purchase (approximately $350 to inspect a shipment of goods). The most well known companies in China that provide QC services are InTouch Services, Bureau Veritas, and Intertek Testing.
6. Validate you Production Schedule – Don’t Get Bumped! – Receiving your order from China on time is just as important as receiving the right product. Chinese factories are notorious for bumping less important (to them) production when a more profitable order comes in the door. Issues with quality are more likely to occur as a result of the supplier rushing to catch up on the schedule that they promised you. So, make sure you are asking the right questions and getting answers in email. These questions include: a) When will production start? Be 50% done? Complete? Ship out? (Confirm that these milestones are being reached) b) Have all the raw materials for this order already arrived at the factory? How about all the packaging materials?
5. Be Brave With The Phone – You can only communicate so much with email. When going back and forth with an overseas supplier does it sometimes seem like they’re just not “getting it”? The time difference can be a pain, but don’t let that stop you from arranging a phone conference with your supplier overseas. Online telephony such as Skype, which almost everyone in China is familiar with, makes it easy and free for you to communicate with contacts in China. Although this may not work for a supplier with low level English speaking capability, I suggest never placing an order if you have not had at least one phone conversation.
4. Get Confirmation On Raw Materials or Risk Everything - It is absolutely integral to the quality of your product that you know exactly what materials are being used, and request documentation from the supplier that the materials are safe. The US continues to see recall after recall of products that have been manufactured with sub-standard materials. For example, if the item you are buying is white plastic, one should ensure that white plastic meets general flammability standards. If the item is likely to come in contact with food, ensure that it is of food grade. You should assume that the factory you are buying from in China will use the cheapest materials possible unless you specify differently. Insist that your supplier provide you with written verification. The FDA and other US organizations have regulations on which plastics, metals and other materials can safely be distributed. If your supplier can not verify this then contact a 3rd party QC company for guidance.
3. Definitely Ask For Samples And Photos – When working with China you must insist on getting samples as often as possible. Don’t accept excuses unless there is a serious obstacle (i.e. no existing mold). Make sure to label and store these samples properly, and each time you receive a new sample compare it carefully with the last one you received. Never confirm to a factory in China that production can go forward until you approve a pre-production sample. You will be able to catch a great number of quality issues before they happen just by putting this process in place.
2. Do away with just Expecting, Inspect! – Just about the simplest, least expensive, and most efficient way to eliminate quality issues with your China-made product is to have it inspected BEFORE it leaves the factory in China. The best way to arrange such an inspection is with a 3rd party QC company (mentioned above in #7), but it may also be arranged with your own staff in Asia, or that of your agent. You should insist on seeing an inspection report in English (including photos) that documents the process.
1. Go By Your Product QC Checklist – Poor communication during the ordering process is by far the root cause of most quality issues with China-based suppliers. One sure-fire way to dramatically improve this communication is with a Product QC Checklist. The QC Checklist is a several page document that details in writing all the important aspects of the items you’re buying. It is best created with the help of a 3rd party QC company who specifically offers this service, but you can create a simple and effective one on your own by following the points below. For more on creating a QC Checklist check Quality Wars which is my blog about QC. The key points that should be included in this checklist are:
a) Item details (item number, SKU description, etc.)
b) Contents and Packaging
e) Appearance and Function
f) Specifications and Special Requirements
Ensure that you have this document professionally translated into Chinese, and make the QC Checklist the starting point for discussing production and quality with your supplier. You may find that you don’t have a lot of the details that the QC Checklist calls for. If that’s the case then I suggest you make up the template and send it over to your supplier to fill in. There’s no shortage of promotional product companies who now work direct with overseas suppliers. With all of the horror stories we hear about import orders gone bad, you can distinguish yourself by being able to consistently deliver excellent quality. Your customers will no doubt appreciate your due diligence, and ability to speak intelligently about your focus on quality