How to get the best out of an inspection agency?

Quality Control TipsAn importer can work with his inspection agency in vastly different ways. I distinguish mainly two opposite approaches that I noticed among my clients. A third-party quality control firm can be used as…

1. A provider of trained labor, paid on a per-use basis

This is the case when the buying company has (or thinks it has) extensive experience in quality control. They might already have in-house inspectors, or they might have been working with third-party firms for several years.

Their primary objectives are to cut costs, to ensure reliability, and/or to “do the job” when their own staff is too busy. They don’t try to get advice or any value-added service.

This type of buyer usually has procedures in place. For example, they have clear specifications about each product, and they make sure conformity samples are sent in a timely manner to the inspection agency. In this case, the inspection firm has less follow-up work, and there are less opportunities for mistakes along the chain.

The largest quality control agencies work this way for small and medium buyers (“fill out the booking form and send us the product specs, and we’ll send you a report once we are done.”)

I think this is seldom the best way to work with an QC firm–except if the shipments are very small and inspection fees have to be kept at a minimum. Here are two examples:

  • The inspection plans might be needlessly heavy. One of my clients wanted 1 inspection per product reference, even when some of these products were pretty similar… Bundling them in fewer inspections was much more efficient.
  • When production is not acceptable, most importers do not know how to proceed. I already detailed the steps to take regarding corrective actions and re-inspections.

2. A solution provider, to secure and improve quality

Many importers feel they need assistance to cope with the challenges of sourcing in China. They often look for agents, or try to work through trading companies, and at the same time they are never sure how much money they leave on the table by doing so.

But this is actually a perfect role for an inspection agency, and some of them (or, should I say, some of us) actively pursue it. We are present in the exporting country, we understand production issues, and we know the way business is done locally. And, last but not least, we only work in the interest of their clients–there is no hidden commission from factories. This makes us the ideal partner of importers when it comes to looking after production.

Some of my clients ask for my subjective opinion about their different suppliers. After talking with several inspectors, I can often point to the (real) reasons for quality/delay issues, and how to avoid them in the future. It is also possible to tell whether increasing volumes in a particular factory will cause problems, depending on the size and the organization of the workshop.

But, once again, the most valuable help we can provide is when things go wrong, when a supplier stops responding, or when nobody knows how to do. I already had to go in a factory and re-establish communication after the boss decided not to rework his products and the merchandiser had (suspiciously) left his company. The alternative would have been for the purchaser to fly over to China, to hire a translator, and to look for the factory location.

Know what you pay for, and be clear about it

If you simply need to hire a guy with a camera, communicate a clear list of checkpoints and get prepared for crisis situations.

On the other hand, if you need personalized guidance, let your inspection agency know about it. When you propose what seems to make sense, ask for their opinion. Make sure you explain them the context of your decisions. And tell your suppliers to cooperate fully and respond to all requests of the QC firm, even if it does not concern inspections directly.