Working with Chinese suppliers

Last year I read a book called “Poorly Made in China”, by Paul Midler. It was recommended by a friend who also used to deal with Chinese suppliers for the company she was working for. The book is written by an American man who works as an intermediary between American customers and Chinese suppliers and tells his misfortunes with the Chinese companies he dealt with.

The book was very entertaining (if you have experience in the field you will be saying “that’s true!” every two pages) and made me realize that, as the saying goes, two in distress make sorrow less. My colleague and I were frequently discussing why we had so many problems with our suppliers, and often thought it was because of the cheap prices our customer forced us to obtain, and because the products we sourced were inexpensive, daily-use items. And that may have been part of the reason, but the truth is that other companies working with other kind of products were also encountering difficulties with their suppliers. So it was not that we were working with the worst suppliers ever, it was a common problem.

What kind of problems were we experiencing? Shipments that were regularly delayed, products that were not in accordance to our specifications, quality issues… In the book, Paul Midler talks about a shampoo which fragrance mysteriously changed after a few shipments and it was not what the customer had approved. When interrogated about it, the supplier replies: “But this aroma is also very good!”. I had a similar situation with wood pieces which were not the same colour approved by my customer. We got a whole shipment of this different colour. And when we told the supplier, his reply was: “Well, but it’s still wood, right?”. Ok, so next time I’ll pay for your shipment with Monopoly money. It’s still money, right?

Another time we had been looking for a specific metal part. It wasn’t a complicated thing to do, but it seems everyone else manufactured this product in exactly the opposite way as we did it, so we had problems finding a supplier who could do it. After several months and on the verge of desperation we finally received decent samples that we approved. We negotiated a price with the supplier, he agreed. When the order arrived, to our dismay we found that the metal color was not the same as the approved samples, and the surface treatment was poorly done. When we told the supplier, his first reaction was trying to deny everything: “What are you saying? They are exactly the same as the approved samples!”. After several phone arguments and sending pictures comparing the samples and the mass production, he finally acknowledged that they were not the same. “But if you need the mass production to be like the samples, then the price has to be higher”. If he had been in front of me I would have slapped him right away.

Then there were the suppliers which assured that they complied with all the international specifications, but if I needed a ROHS or REACH compliance certificate I would need to have the tests done myself. Well, how do they know their product can pass all the tests if they haven’t done the tests? “Our customer did it and told us we passed”, they would tell me. Right. And what about the ones that show fake pictures in their websites? I have seen pictures of spotlessly clean factories with shiny floors, only to arrive at the supplier’s premises and find a dirty workshop with floors and walls covered in black thick dust.

My Spanish colleague was always very concerned about a problem that is too common when working with Chinese suppliers: their products’ quality slowly diminishes over time, while they cut out corners in order to increase their benefits. As Paul Midler wrote in his book, “Factories did not see an attention to quality as something that would improve their business prospects, but merely as a barrier to increased profitability”. Amen to that.

I am sure not all Chinese suppliers are like this, but unfortunately many of them are. If you ever need to outsource anything from China be sure to understand the risks, send your orders well in advance in preparation for possible delays, keep in close contact with the supplier to ensure everything is clear, cross your fingers and hope for the best. And remember, if the price you agreed seems too cheap to be true, it probably is.