When your business of importing from china 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? To use a buying office or a buying agent?
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, trust is important. 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 for a few times.
2. Contract versus verbal commitment
Some buyers think a contract is not important so they work with buying agent and suppliers on verbal commitment, binding by morality and virtue.
We have a 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 a lawyer to draft and review the contract.
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 is often a one-man show. If bad things happen, the person 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 him/her the commission. The agent might turn a blind eye to quality issues, 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 the person presents 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, 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/she does not know the product, he/she will not know how to plan quality control, will not know the costing, and cannot negotiate the price properly. He/she might not even know where to buy product.
That is why Li & Fung only hires 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 buying 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 buying 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 him/her 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 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.