Returning Substandard Products to Your China Factory

David Dayton at Silk Road International Blog did a post on a topic near and dear to my heart, Returning Products to a Factory in China. Our international manufacturing lawyers often deal with this issue when companies seek assistance in securing a refund for bad product from a Chinese company that is not budging.

I will first set out Silk Road’s excellent business advice to a friend interested in returning a container of product to his Chinese supplier. My comments are in italics.

1. This will kill any good will you may have developed with your supplier. You will need to find a new supplier. My belief is that Chinese style “cooperation” means you allow for a few mistakes/problems and still accept the product for the purchase price. Now you are calling their bluff and asking them to actually put up cash (redoing the order is cash out of their pocket). All true.

2. You may not get the product back into the country — especially if it’s defective or already opened because of import restrictions. There are limits to what China (and all countries) will allow into their country. Rejected product and or second hand items are often not allowed into China. You need to confirm with a freight forwarder that this is even an option before you start negotiating with your China product supplier. All true.

3. You must decide who will pay and where the cash will come from before you take any unilateral action. An “I’m just going to send it right back to them, dammit!” strategy does not work. Even verbal commitments from your China factory rep are ABSOLUTELY not enough. You need to get a written, stamped document from a factory manager/owner that says exactly what you they have agreed to do. Completely true. We had a Polish client who returned playground equipment to a manufacturer here in the United States (how is that for a reversal?) and the equipment just sat and sat. For all I know, it is still sitting.

4. There is really no such thing as “credit” — the cash for the redo has to come from somewhere. So be careful. If your China factory says it will “credit your account” you’d better know how much actual cash and what that will buy next time. If you think that you’ll get another order for free (especially if you can’t send it back) you’re probably wrong.

True. And what is it that makes you think that your supplier who got it all wrong when you were actually paying in full is going to get it all right when you are paying it even less this time?

5. You will see the returned product again, somewhere. If the product is usable and if you can send it back into China and if you are getting a second order for free I can guarantee you the Chinese factory will sell your stuff to cover its costs. They do not care about your reputation in the industry; they are concerned about their bottom line, first and foremost. Be prepared for customer service calls from Karachi. This too has happened to many a company that has reached out to our manufacturing lawyers for help. Recently, we dealt with a US company that gave explicit instructions to its China factor to destroy all of the inferior product. Problem was this company did not get this in writing nor did it go to the factory to monitor. Only in this case, the goods did not go to Karachi, they came to Seattle, where a retailer called our client and asked how a distributor was able to sell our client’s normally $100 item (wholesale) for $35. Our client tasked us with researching whether they would need to honor their warranty on the grey market defective goods but then called us off the project the very next day after making the business decision to honor the warranty no matter what.

Dayton rightly calls for a balancing approach in determining whether to return your product:

What will it really cost you in terms of time, shipping costs, and/or lost clients due to the production flaw, etc? You need to balance the nature of the problem with the fact that giving the product back will destroy your factory relationship and your product will still find it’s way into the market and you’ll have to pay costs (return shipping at least) that you don’t have now.

Dayton then sets out the only real solution:

DON’T EVER SHIP BEFORE YOU (YOU PERSONALLY OR SOMEONE OTHER THAN THE FACTORY) APPROVE IT. It doesn’t matter how “good” your relationship with the factory is. It doesn’t matter if you’ve shipped the same thing a dozen times before. It doesn’t matter how big your order is or how many other future orders rely on this shipment.

He’s right, but seeing as how this admonition is violated more often than not, and oftentimes because the buyer has no real choice, I will add the following:

1. Get your China supplier to sign a really good manufacturing contract with you that provides exactly what sort of quality you need and what will happen if you do not get that.

2. Almost always, your contract with your China supplier should be in Chinese. If it is in English and you need to use it in a Chinese court, you do not want the Chinese court doing the English to Chinese language translation.

3. Almost always, your contract should provide for disputes to be resolved in the Chinese courts.

4. Your manufacturing contract should be unbelievably explicit about the product standards the product you are buying must meet. Good supplier contracts serve four main purposes. They make sure that you and your supplier are on the same page, they make transgressions by your supplier far less likely, they give you leverage if there is a transgression, and they increase your chance of prevailing should a transgression occur.

For how to prevent getting bad product from your Chinese suppliers in the first place, check out How To Protect Your Company From Bad China Product