If there was a foolproof method to finding good suppliers then I would not be writing this post right now. I probably would not even have a China -related job but would be off teaching 18th Century literature somewhere. The fact is that finding reliable suppliers is one of the most frustrating aspects of sourcing in China.
There are four ways to find suppliers in China:
1.) Online sites like alibaba.com and global sources. I am skeptical of meeting vendors online simply because you have no idea who you are dealing with. I sometimes find it useful to get quotes from online suppliers when I am trying to figure out how much something costs to make in China but as far as actually ordering from people I have not met and know next to nothing about I would not advise it. I certainly would not do it if it were my business. A lot of small companies, start-ups and mompreneurs source online because the costs are seductively low, it is an easy process and they do not understand what a minefield China sourcing is.
2.) Trade Fairs. This I think it the best way to find new suppliers. As I have lived in or travelled to China for 25 years and speak the language fairly well I have become pretty adept at evaluating vendors, and I would say that my snap judgments are fairly accurate. I can usually tell what a vendor will be like to work with after spending an hour in their trade show booth discussing things with them and then following up with them after the show about samples and other issues. Occasionally I am surprised when a vendor I had marked as a good prospect turns out to be otherwise. But like I said I generally can spot the good ones from the bad ones. I really believe that there is no substitute for meeting the people who are going to be making your product. It is expensive to attend trade fairs in China. But it is more expensive to take possession of 3 containers of shoddy goods you cannot pass onto your customer(s).
3.) US or Canadian based China agents or product development companies. Although agents can save you a lot of time, energy and money in the beginning, working with agents over the long-term can be a costly exercise in frustration. In fact, most of the inquiries I get are from people who are not satisfied with their US or Canadian based China agents. They are not satisfied with the quality of the product they are receiving or the rising costs of that product. Still this is not to say that there are no good agents out there. There are and I have worked with them. But my sense is that you have to go through a lot of bad agents to find a good agent.
4.) Referrals. If you have a friend or trusted acquaintance who can introduce a good vendor to you this can remove a lot anxiety and some risk when you source in China. There are two problems with this approach though: First, how many people do you know who are doing business in China in your same product line who are not competitors and would be happy to divulge their suppliers to you ? Second just because a vendor has proven reliable for someone you know does not mean they will be so for you. It all depends on your product, QA standards, target costs and QTYs. There is no vendor who is simply going to roll out the red carpet for you just because one of your friends is a customer of theirs (unless they are a HUGE customer). But getting the name of a factory from someone you know, if you can do it, is a very good start. You should at least receive prompt replies to all your production inquiries.
The key is as I wrote in my post yesterday, to manage expectations. It may take you a year or two to find a supplier you are happy with. If you know that going into your China sourcing, your experience in China will be better.