If you approach a manufacturer directly, or use a middleman, it’s different.
We do not think it is bad to use middlemen. Production is so complicated, they can take care of a lot of the difficulty. If you have limited time, and do not have a very specific vision, then this is a good option to consider.
If the supplier offers a large variety of products, they are probably "middlemen" for at least some of them.
Commonly-used middlemen are Vograce, Juno, Zap Creatives, Alchemy Merch, etc. (Some of these do make items in addition to outsourcing.)
It's normal for companies to sub-contract to other companies during busy periods, for supplying things which they cannot do themselves, etc...
The manufacturer might offer you lower unit prices, however the minimum quantities might end up higher. Dialogue will also be more frequent. It gives maximum control but also at maximum headaches from all the research, etc. (Sometimes it’s ok to be honest and think that blaming a middleman might be therapeutic.)
Alibaba is the common site which is referred to for English speakers to communicate with manufacturers. There's a lot about who is a manufacturer and who isn't a manufacturer on that website. It's so well used now that there are guides for how to find manufacturers.
You will have more luck searching for these guides by applying terms like OEM and ODM. Sorry, I won't be explaining this. To succeed with Alibaba, you need to learn the skill of finding things on your own.
This is a lot of work, and is one of many dozens of reasons why people may not like to share manufacturers.
Anyway, this section is for talking to manufacturers.
BE CLEAR with your manufacturer. They aren’t here to judge you, they are just rude/standoffish/abrupt because they need to narrow things down. Like with fast food clerks, it’s enough to be polite and thank them at the end.
Sometimes your rep is a sales rep, not a manager. The sales rep is taking your English request and relaying it to a production manager. Clear diagrams are good, and knowing the lingo will help the exchange from becoming a game of Telephone (especially across language barriers).
It can be more efficient to take screenshots and circle/draw arrows in a situation with multiple possibilities.
Sometimes the best supplier for you isn’t the cheapest but the one which understands you best.
If you plan to negotiate, it is important to remember cultural context. Negotiation is very culturally sensitive.
In a similar vein, consider helping out your rep if you need something, such as asking if they are able to produce free samples if you pay for a large order first.
In return, you can also request conditions, such as 80/20 payment (80% at the start, 20% after confirming images of the product at the end).
Obviously this only works if your order is large enough.
This adds an extra layer of insurance, but it has a risk of slowing down the overall order due to extra overhead.
It is YOUR responsibility to supervise the details. Ask for confirmation and be clear while doing so. If there is a contract, inspect all the details.
It’s not over until you get the product. Make sure to check over the product. You can let the manufacturer know if all went well or not.
Manufacturers strike a balance between what is desired and what is possible within the limits of their tooling, their experience, and reality. Different manufacturers will have different tools and different amounts of money put into their equipment. And your rep is tasked with communicating their capabilities to you much as you would be tasked with understanding what they are capable of.
Sometimes it's ok to not go in asking for price. Work out your main concern and ask about that. Even if you don't ask for price, factories might try to quote for you / produce samples to demonstrate their competitiveness.
Note: While it’s their job to tell you what they can do, you will most definitely get points for coming prepared and knowing what you want. If you are able to ask precise questions, it demonstrates a respect for their time, which strengthens your position.
An intro letter we have sent while sourcing a new product: Hi. Looking to use this product for ecommerce. May you help advise the total weight of XXXXXX? Wishing to calculate my freight cost to customer.
Example of a precise question during chat: The rep was engaged in a conversation and further explanation was added that we ship via air and not via sea. As the rep did not respond about the exact weight, we asked "10 grams?" directly, and they replied with "about 20 grams" as the direct question leaves them open to liability.
Will add to this as more is thought of.