Originally published by Promo Marketing on June 1, 2012.
Picking the right suppliers might be the most important decision you make on a daily basis. You want supplier partners that are good at more than just decorating the product. You want suppliers that have a core competency-and can do it better than anyone else in the industry. When selecting a supplier for an order, there are many factors that should go into your decision. If you stop at who gives the biggest rebate or has the shiniest new products, you are taking on more risk than you might imagine.
Two weeks ago, my post “Core Competency: Why It Matters” spoke to the importance of using suppliers that have a core competency in the product category you are buying from them. At that time, I promised to share some relatively simple ways to determine if this core competency exists and, perhaps more importantly, some ways you can qualify suppliers to ensure they meet your-and your customer’s-standards.
One of the most obvious ways is to take a look at the supplier’s product offering and ask questions that follow the simple principal: “It is very difficult to be good at everything.” It’s amazing what you can tell just by pausing in front of a tradeshow booth to get an overall view before you jump into the product frenzy so common at our industry tradeshows.
- Does the supplier specialize in one or two categories? Or does it have a soup-to-nuts product offering? The more categories the company has, the greater the likelihood that it is not good at some (or all) of them. Think of it like a great restaurant: The best typically specialize in one type of cuisine. You do not go to a steak house and expect to get good Sushi or Pasta dishes. There are too many differences in ingredients and preparation methods.
- Are the supplier’s products generally manufactured the same way? Examples range from bag companies that specialize in cut-and-sew to office accessory companies that provide injection-molded plastic items. The supplier that has fewer manufacturing processes tends to have more expertise and will probably have stronger relationships with a fewer number of factories, which could give you better pricing and shorter production timelines.
- How does the supplier source merchandise? Does it have all the latest hot products regardless of category? If it does, most of the company’s sourcing likely comes from one of the China product fairs, and there is less likelihood that the homework on product requirements has been done. However, if the company develops its own items, it is working closer with factories and knows the specifications for the products.
- What, if anything, can the supplier tell you about how the products are made? This is related to all the questions above, but the answer will give you more direct insight into how well the company understands its products. Do you want to do business with an expert? Or are you okay with the supplier practicing on you?
After you get a sense of whether or not the supplier has a product as a core competency, the next logical step is to further qualify the supplier to determine what, if any, transparency and control the company has of its supply chain. I touched on this topic in the previous post “Supply Chain Transparency and Control,” which focused on a related principal: “You cannot have a meaningful relationship with everyone.” Factories rarely do more than one or two different types of manufacturing. You will not find plush items and hand sanitizers being made in the same factory.
To further qualify your suppliers, ask these questions:
- How many factories does the supplier use? There should be enough factories to create competitive pricing while not having so many that the supplier means little to any of them. You want your suppliers to be very important to the factories they use.
- What is the supplier’s factory qualification process? Does the company do a factory site visit and evaluation? The answer will give you a sense of what type of time investment is being made to ensure the factory is up to par.
- What resources does the supplier have near the factory to monitor factory performance and do production inspections? Having its own staff is better than hiring others to perform these functions. Factories will perform better for suppliers that are vigilant and have checks and balances in place.
- What is the supplier’s compliance program, and how does it determine what the requirements are for any new products added to its line? Can the supplier send you the table to contents from its compliance program notebook? The company can-if the compliance program actually exists. This gives an indication of the thought process the supplier uses before adding a new product or factory.
- Does the supplier have an over reliance on testing agencies for product requirements or factory-level certifications such as WRAP and FLA? If so, the supplier is outsourcing its compliance program to the factory and taking the factory at its word. Having this role in-house is one indication of the supplier’s commitment to looking before it leaps into new products.
You want to hire the most qualified, highly skilled professionals to work inside your company. Shouldn’t you do the same due diligence for those working on your behalf outside your company walls? The suppliers that win your business will obviously need to meet your pricing, delivery, in-stock position and customer service needs. But the questions above will help you further identify those suppliers that are truly the best in the industry in their respective product categories-and best positioned to meet your Fortune 1000 client needs. Good luck and happy sourcing.
Brent Stone is executive director – operations for Quality Certification Alliance (QCA), the promotional products industry’s only independent, not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping companies provide safe products. A Six Sigma Black Belt, Stone has more than 25 years of in-depth supply chain management experience with extensive expertise in process design, development, improvement and management. He can be reached email@example.com or visit www.qcalliance.org for more information.