Quality fade and how to prevent it. Plus- why I have 240 speed ropes that I can’t sell
You’ve done the hard work of finding a factory to partner with. You’re a few orders in with the factory and most things seem to be running smoothly. You start thinking that this factory business really isn’t that hard- once you find a factory and work through the start-up problems, things will run on autopilot. Right?
And then it happens. You let your guard down and let a few shipments sail without inspections. Or maybe you get the shipments inspected, but you miss a subtle item on the inspection report. In either case, you get your goods in, and notice something is not right! Cosmetically, the goods look like what you ordered, but small things are different.
Maybe you ordered some ice makers and the water pump is a slightly different model. Or, the thread used in your stitching is lower quality. You are the victim of quality fade.
What is quality fade?
Quality fade is when a supplier begins producing goods at a lower quality than they previously produced. In the Chinese sourcing game, quality fade is often a money-saving tactic from the factory.
You’ve agreed on a price, and the factory is going to honor that price (at least for a while). But the factory will often look for ways to decrease their costs- which often means substituting lower quality components in your products!
They’ll usually do this in ways that they think you won’t notice:
- Replacing components on the inside of an item- like the water pump mentioned in the ice maker example
- Changing the mix of a component like cement or rubber- I’ve seen factories use cheaper mixing agents for rubber bumper plates that produce a weight plate that looks good on first inspection, but fails earlier than other plates.
- Going to a cheaper box (packaging). This one can be hard to spot, as many inspectors (and many buyers) are ignorant of cardboard box strength and durability
- Replacing components that they think are too small or inconsequential to matter
In other cases, it can just be a sign that the factory is paying less attention to QA (quality assurance) on your orders than they were when you were in the honeymoon period with them. Either way, you thought you were paying for an acceptable level of quality, but the factory is shipping a lower level!
Insult to injury
To make matters worse, when caught in a quality fade, a factory will often insist that the quality fade is actually a benefit to you or to the customer!
What’s going on here?
One of the biggest psychological problems with quality fade and the aftermath (getting your quality back on track) is that the relationship between you and your “factory partner” is damaged.
You feel that you have been wronged by the laoban. He doesn’t want to admit fault (in most cases) because that would mean that he swindled you on purpose (or through ignorance/indolence)- which would mean a huge loss of face for him. But coming from a Western business mindset, you probably view the rightful path in this situation to be:
- The laoban takes responsibility for the problem
- Fixes the current situation
- Promises to never do it again- and puts in place some sort of quality check to ensure the problem doesn’t recur
But unless you wield a lot of power in the situation, the above path is unlikely to be trod.
So what do you do?
The best solution is to bring the problem to the attention of your contact at the factory, and hopefully, the laoban.
- Be polite, but forceful when presenting your case
- Have pictures, numbers, and documentation (POs that specify components, email exchanges making clear what you had ordered) to ensure that there is no wiggle room for the factory to claim a miscommunication
- Work with the factory to determine a solution. Try to find a way to allow them to send replacement parts or provide some compensation to you in a way that does not cause them to lose face. As much as this approach feels wrong, I have had the most success with resolving these types of problems with it
- Don’t burn a bridge with the factory over these problems unless you have to
- If you have not paid for some of the shipment, you can use withholding funds as leverage, but understand that this is the nuclear option and may forever damage your relationship with this factory, and your reputation with related factories.
How can you avoid quality fade in the first place?
Easy! Be organized, professional, and systematic.
- Have detailed specifications for your products
- Include specifications for the packaging, manuals, etc.
- Reference these specifications on your purchase orders
- Provide your inspection company with the specifications and have them check the key components. For example, when I sourced air conditioners, I had the inspector partially disassemble one unit from each batch and check the brand and model number of the compressor, the water pump, and the fan motors
- Learn from your mistakes! When you get in trouble once, figure out how to change your systems and procedures so that it does not happen again
My recent story
I ordered about 6,000 speed ropes from a new supplier about 6 months ago. The ropes came in and were great- so we reordered. On the reorder, the supplier substituted shorter screws (used to adjust the length of the actual jump rope cable). The problem here is that the new screws are too short to properly hold the cable in place when the speed rope is used.
The supplier never noticed the problem because they don’t use what they sell (a very common issue when dealing with suppliers). So the shorter screws were never tested in operation.
In this case, we had 240 speed ropes expedited from China to our warehouse because we were running low on inventory. But because of the quality fade, we can’t sell most of these ropes as-is! Thankfully, we have stock of the screws from our previous order, so we are able to rework some of the ropes in order to sell them.
For the remainder, I got on Skype with the laoban and expressed my disappointment. With this factory, we are actually a pretty large customer, so I was able to make my case more forcefully than I might with other factories, and the supplier quickly agreed to expedite over the original length screws (at the cost of the supplier). I’ll have my warehouse guys rework all the speed ropes, and we’ll be set.
We have since updated our specifications to reflect the longer (correct) screw length, and we should be set for the future!
Did I miss anything?
Let me know in the comments. Whether you are a newbie with unanswered questions, or a seasoned China hand, I love all input and feedback.
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