Should I work directly with a factory or through an agent?
This article is part of my Manufacturing for a Kickstarter series.
Working through a local agent gives you the comfort of having someone dedicated to servicing you, communicate on your behalf and them being an independent company ensures they won’t always side with the factory to your detriment.
If your quantities are small, working through an agent has the advantage that the agent can pool their purchases together with other clients to give to the same factory and the factory will be incentivized to do a good job or else they risk the agent pulling out the whole pool of orders if one order is neglected.
Agents may be knowledgeable about the ins and outs of their list of factories and may know who to contact, who to sweet-talk and who to avoid.
Seasoned agents may know how to find the small factories in far away places that aren’t well established and therefore might be cheaper.
Perhaps your company needs a local agent for legal purposes so that they can put someone on the line (located in the same jurisdiction) when things go south?
Or perhaps you need an agent like you need a secretary? You’re constantly throwing ideas out and need someone other than the factory to write them down and digest them.
Depending on industry norms, some factories may even expect the buyer to roll up their sleeves too. These factories are so chaotic during busy seasons that if you want something as simple as moving a trolley of goods from one department to another, you either wait 24 hours or you do it yourself in 2 minutes. Agents with experience in these industries and with a team of staff on the floor are able to handle this.
In some industries, the factories may not even allow you to work with them directly without having already established a trusting relationship through a mutual party.
This is not withstanding the work that agents are supposed to do including making sure production goes smoothly, giving expert advice and bridging cultural divides.
Agent also sometimes act as an aggression buffer in absorbing aggressive and snarky remarks from both sides. After all, every employee has good days and bad days.
But nowadays, with the world getting smaller and being bridged by technology, it is becoming increasingly uncommon to use agents.
Factories increasingly have a sales department to engage directly with customers and have a website to advertise themselves. Even small factories on a low budget can cheaply set up a presence on social media.
Factories and the departments within them can be easily contacted through email, video chat and instant messaging which is all free and works 24 hours a day.
Easy-to-use drawing programs allow factories to create mock ups easily for customers to approve, which saves the need for translators.
Television and the Internet has enabled everyone to be aware of other cultures around the world and to be more accepting of cultural differences.
In third-world countries, people are more likely to own a smartphone than a computer.
Working directly with a factory has risks, but so does working through an agent.
Does the agent really stand on your side or do they side with the factory? After all, they’ve know the factory for more years than they’ve known you.
Are you afraid certain product requirements get lost in translation? A la the “purple monkey washer” conundrum.
Are you afraid the agent deliberately excluded certain product requirements to lure the factory into accepting an order, just so that the agent could sign the deal?
Does the agent select the best factory for the job or do they select the factory based on convenience?
Does the factory work Saturdays till 9pm, but your agent only works till 6pm Friday, so you’re missing a day of information?
All these are points to consider when choosing agent or no agent.