Per my 20-year experience in global sourcing and quality management, I’ve learned that good suppliers share the same good qualities.
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.
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.
2. 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.
In either case, you can learn a lot about a supplier by verifying areas such as:
A. Raw materials and finished product inventory
B. Incoming quality control, in-process and pre-shipment quality control procedures
C. R&D capabilities (important if you plan to develop new products)
D. Machine and equipment maintenance and calibration
E. Certifications or licensing (e.g. business license, export license)
3. Expertise in your product type and target market
Asking the following questions can help you vet prospective suppliers’ experience with your product and market:
A. Where does the supplier export the majority of their products to?
B. Is the supplier familiar with legal requirements and regulations in your target market?
C. Does the supplier have a reliable network of sub-suppliers for raw materials, production inputs and components for your product type?
D. 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.
4. 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:
A. What kind of companies do they typically work with?
B. What is their minimum order quantity (MOQ)?
C. What do they know about your business?
D. How detailed is their quote? Have they taken time to tailor their quote to your specific requirements?
5. 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.
6. Cooperation with third-party
Outside oversight can actually help the factory by:
A. Pointing out defects the factory’s own QC staff might have missed
B. Improving their customer relationships by ensuring product quality before shipment
C. Clarifying product requirements and inspection expectations, preventing customer returns and chargebacks.
7. Ethical compliance
Ethical sourcing has made its way into the spotlight. As larger brands have made headlines in recent years for social compliance violations in their supply chain, countries have taken steps to outlaw goods made with forced labor.
8. Regulatory compliance
Aside from ethical compliance, importers need to ensure their supplier complies with laws in both their manufacturing country and their target market. Failing to ensure regulatory compliance can otherwise lead to legal consequences for you and your business.
Some common market- or product-specific regulations and certifications to verify include:
A. FCC Declaration of Conformity, Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and (CE) for electrical and electronic equipment
B. Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) for food, medical devices, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics
C. General Certificate of Conformity (GCC) for any non-children’s product subject to a U.S. consumer product safety rule
D. Children’s Product Certificate for all children’s products subject to S. children’s product safety rules
E. Model Toxics in Packaging Legislation for packaging materials and components
It’s a great idea to ask potential suppliers for previous test reports and certificates as evidence of their compliance. You might also consider arranging independent product testing for a supplier’s samples to further verify compliance where applicable.
9. Clear and comprehensive recordkeeping
The best suppliers proactively update their records and information to seamlessly implement changes. Important information for your supplier to keep organized and continually updated includes:
A. Quality standards, including known quality issues, defect classifications and performance standards
B. Product specifications and requirements, including dimensions, colors and materials
C. Packaging requirements, including labels, shipping markings and retail printing files
D. Regulatory requirements, including any changes in legislation and standards
10. A proactive attitude towards continuous improvement
This last quality is probably the hardest to find among overseas suppliers. But it’s also one of the most valuable if you’re serious about maintaining a long-term, high-volume relationship with a supplier.
The vast majority of manufacturers for low-cost consumer products won’t adopt lean manufacturing techniques on their own. But conducting a process audit can help you identify root causes for product quality issues and then work with your supplier to fix them.