It’s lead paint on a children’s gift toy. It is a computer mouse that can seriously shock the user. It seems that each new day brings a wave of product recalls and safety alerts regarding products coming from China. Importers and distributors of promotional products are just as susceptible as retailers to the disastrous effect on business and reputation that the distribution of a dangerous product will bring. As more of us in the promotional products industry deal with suppliers from China on a daily basis, the following strategies can serve as a guide to ensure that you receive only the highest quality products from abroad.
10. Know who you’re working with: When you buy goods from China, it’s often hard to tell if you’re working with a factory, a trading company, or something in between. When it comes to product and quality issues, it’s critical that you know exactly who you’re working with and that the relationship is transparent to all parties. If you are not working directly with the factory and the supplier cannot give you satisfactory answers about the product, then they are inhibiting the sourcing process for you and you should reconsider the relationship. If you are having difficulty identifying who you are working with, you should contact a company that specializes in China Supplier Verification.
9. Keep emails short, sweet, and to the point: I have great respect for the amount of English used by local Chinese staff, having never lived in an English-speaking country. However, based on my business experience 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 lengthy explanation or suggestion to a foreign supplier. English is not this person’s first language. Keep your emails simple and your instructions clear.
8. Payment to Chinese Suppliers: Bank Transfer (W/T) or Letter of Credit (L/C)? – Having a secure and well-communicated payment agreement before placing your order is beneficial to both parties and one of the parameters of a relationship that fosters quality. Unless you have a long-standing and trusting relationship with your supplier, L/C should always be your preferred method of payment. If you have not used an L/C before, contact your bank’s business department for assistance.
7. Save money and headaches with a third-party quality control (“QC”): Working with a third-party quality control company in China allows you to take advantage of the experience of companies whose mission is to ensure that the quality of the products meet certain standards. These companies provide services like product inspection, factory audit, and laboratory testing. The service is generally available at a flat rate that can offer great value in relation to the total cost of your purchase (approximately $350 to inspect a shipment of goods). The best-known companies in China that provide quality control services are InTouch Services, Bureau Veritas, and Intertek Testing.
6. Confirm your production schedule – don’t be fooled! – Receiving your order from China on time is just as important as receiving the correct product. Chinese factories are notorious for ramping up production that is less important (to them) when a more profitable order arrives. Quality issues are more likely to occur as a result of the supplier rushing to catch up on the promised schedule. So make sure you ask the right questions and get answers via email. These questions include: a) When will production begin? Being 50% done? Complete? Send? (Please confirm that these milestones are being reached) b) Have all the raw materials for this order arrived at the factory yet? What about all the packing materials?
5. Don’t be afraid of the phone – you can only get in touch with email. When you go back and forth with a foreign supplier, does it sometimes seem like they just don’t “get” you? The time difference can be a nuisance, but don’t let that stop you from arranging a conference call with your provider abroad. Online telephony like Skype, which almost everyone in China is familiar with, makes it easy and free to communicate with contacts in China. Although this may not work for a supplier with a low level of English, I suggest you never order if you haven’t had at least one phone conversation.
4. Check 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 made with substandard materials. For example, if the item you are purchasing is white plastic, you must ensure that the white plastic meets general flammability standards. If the item is likely to come into contact with food, make sure it is food grade. You should assume that the factory you are buying from in China will use the cheapest materials possible unless you specify otherwise. Insist that your provider provide you with written verification. The FDA and other US organizations have regulations about which plastics, metals, and other materials can be safely distributed. If your vendor is unable to verify this, please contact a third-party quality assurance company for guidance.
3. Samples are worth a thousand photos: When working with China, you should insist on getting samples as often as possible. Do not accept excuses unless there is a serious obstacle (ie no mold). Be sure to label and store these samples correctly, and each time you receive a new sample, carefully compare it to the last one you received. Never confirm to a factory in China that production can go ahead until you approve a pre-production sample. You will be able to catch a large number of quality issues before they happen simply by implementing this process.
2. Don’t wait, inspect! – Just about the simplest, least expensive, and most efficient way to eliminate quality issues with your China-made product is to inspect it BEFORE it leaves the factory in China. Such an inspection is best arranged with a third-party QA company (mentioned in #7 above), but it can also be arranged with your own staff in Asia or your agent’s. You should insist on seeing an inspection report in English (including photos) documenting the process.
1. Product Quality Control Checklist: Poor communication during the ordering process is by far the root cause of most quality issues with China-based suppliers. One surefire way to drastically improve this communication is with a product quality control checklist. The quality control checklist is a multi-page document that details in writing all the important aspects of the items you are purchasing. It’s best to create it with the help of a third-party QA company that specifically offers this service, but you can create a simple and effective one yourself by following the points below. For more information on how to create a QA checklist, check out Quality Wars, which is my QA blog. The key points that should be included in this checklist are:
a) Item details (item number, SKU description, etc.)
b) Content and Packaging
e) Appearance and Function
f) Specifications and Special Requirements
Make sure you have this document professionally translated into Chinese and make the QA checklist your starting point for discussing production and quality with your supplier. You may find that you don’t have many of the details that the quality checklist requires. If that’s the case, I suggest you create the template and send it to your vendor for completion. There is no shortage of promotional product companies now working directly with foreign suppliers. With all the horror stories we hear about failed import orders, you can set yourself apart by being able to consistently deliver excellent quality. Your clients will no doubt appreciate your due diligence and your ability to speak intelligently about your focus on quality.