Success on Amazon In Spite Of Amazon w/ Lesley From Riverbend Consulting – #36

the brand builder show podcast artwork
The Brand Builder Show
Success on Amazon In Spite Of Amazon w/ Lesley From Riverbend Consulting – #36

Welcome back to another episode of the Brand Builder Show! 

This week we’re joined by Lesley Hensell, co-founder of leading Amazon agency Riverbend Consulting. Riverbend are experts at handling complex cases and overcoming significant problems to help Amazon sellers thrive.

In this episode we discussed:

  • How to win against the eCommerce giant in 2022
  • The absolute best way to get fast, helpful support from Amazon Seller Support
  • How to maximize revenue whilst reducing risks
  • And much more!

Connect with Lesley & Riverbend:

Helpful resources:

If you got this far, there’s a chance you enjoyed the episode… if so, please consider leaving a review – we really appreciate it!

Talking Points:

00:00 Introducing Lesley

04:02 How to handle Amazon

09:44 Frustrations with Seller Support

15:13 Amazon abusing position

18:17 Maximize revenue, reduce risk

22:31 Creating a lasting brand

24:55 Product safety precautions

28:40 Amazon transparency program

Ben Donovan  00:00
Hey guys, welcome back to another episode of The Brand Builder show and we’re in for a good one. Today, I’ve got my friend Lesley from riverbed consulting here, Leslie, welcome to the show today.
Lesley Hensell  00:10
Hey, Ben excited to be here.
Ben Donovan  00:12
I’m excited to have you here because I have actually utilized the amazing services of Riverbend before you guys helped us out when we were really in a pickle. And you guys are like the ninjas of the Amazon Seller Central World can solve just about any problem. And so I’m sure there’s gonna be some golden nuggets in here for our audience about managing a business growing an Amazon business in, you know, less favorable times than maybe we saw a few years ago. So I’m excited to hear about all that you have to share with us today. But before we get into that, why don’t you give us a bit of a longer intro about yourself how you came to be part of Riverbend, maybe even just a little bit about the Riverbend story itself, how you guys became to be a very influential agency. Give us the rundown, and then we’ll dive into it.
Lesley Hensell  01:02
Sure, well, my background is actually in business consulting, small business consulting, so in the marketing side, doing some PR, but before that, I did operational consulting. So back in the day, it was actually helping people redesign the line at their small manufacturing plant. So then in 2010, I started selling on Amazon, and I’ve, I still sell on Amazon today. But at the time, you know, I was really enjoying the, the kind of part time work when I want to Amazon gig. But then I decided I wanted to get back into consulting. And I started going to conferences and meeting a lot of people and Oh, my goodness, there were a lot of needs, especially in the My Accounts been suspended, what do I do space, and my ASINs are taken down, or, you know, my warehouse just isn’t functioning the way that I really think it should be functioning. And I started thinking, Oh, my goodness, all of these skills I had, back in the day old school businesses, it’s all the same thing. It’s just ecommerce, started helping people out with account appeals, and met my now business partner, Joe Zalta, because his account had been suspended. He had tried many times to get it reinstated, couldn’t get her done. And I wrote him an appeal. And the next day he was turned back on. And he said, You know what, we really need to do this together, we have got to get together launch a business. So we did about five years ago, he’s really strong. on the sales side, I manage our service team. And we’ve grown from starting out with four people. Now we have 75. And we’ve just gradually added services that do one of two things. Either we’re trying to solve a problem with Amazon that is super frustrating, like your inventory stuck in trans shipping for 90 days, and you don’t know why or all of a sudden your brand registry is suspended. And they say you’re abusive, but you didn’t do anything, that kind of stuff where you, you go to Seller Support 1000 times, and they’re not helpful. So that’s kind of one category. And then another category is some of the dirty work, the things that are too time consuming, like reimbursements, or feedback removal or answering customer service messages if you’re a big merchant fulfilled seller. So we we honestly just we’ve made a business out of doing the things no one else wants to do.
Ben Donovan  03:35
I mean, it’s big business, especially with Amazon. And that’s something I would love to talk to you about, you know, how can people really win in 2022? You know, when it feels like at times we’re fighting against Amazon, sometimes Amazon is the, you know, the one who gives but also takes at the same time, how to sell as continue to a win in this environment, but also be stay sane, and not lose their minds.
Lesley Hensell  04:02
See, that is such a great question. Especially, I think I’m a very confusing person to others who see the content I put out there because I’m Amazon’s biggest cheerleader. And yet, I’ll tell you all these horror stories about things that happened to sellers, so it sounds like two different people talking. So I think right now sellers have to make sure they do not invite trouble. Because if you aren’t handling all the details of your business, if you’re not completely on top of it, you’re at risk of losing revenue sources. You cannot have your best ASINs taken down right now, because we’re all going to struggle to have our sales continue at the same level. In a an inflationary environment. When now consumer confidence is starting to drop. People aren’t going to spend as much all of those things are working against us. The last thing you can afford to do is not Stay on top of product quality answering customer messages doing the things you have to do on Amazon, giving them any ammunition to take down your products. And my my very favorite strategy for this I call it fixed your worst Asin. But you’re fixing your worst asin all the time is continual improvement, run your return reports, where do you have the most returns, those ASINs are at risk of being suspended. And they’re costing you more money. Because returns kill your margins, just destroy them.
Lesley Hensell  05:33
So run your returns reports, figure out which ASINs are problematic. Look at all the data that you’re given. Don’t assume customers are all bad people I know some of them are. But don’t assume that they’re all lying. Look at voice of the customer. Look at reviews, look at store feedback, look at your customer service messages. There’s something to improve about that worst JSON your packaging, your listing is might be confusing. It could be a size issue that you can solve. It can be a manufacturer or QA issue, tackle that one asin make it better. And then I’m sorry, but your job isn’t done because then you do the next work worse. Asin. And if you do this, there are two great rewards. One is you’re keeping Amazon off your back with product quality. And two is you’re going to make more money.
Ben Donovan  06:22
Yeah, what’d you say product quality? How does one go about this, they get the dreaded, you know, warning that your product is at risk of suppression because of customer feedback, we’ve probably all had it right, it can easily happen if you get a few bad reviews all at once. What are some of the steps that you would recommend a seller to take to mitigate that to overcome that, to make sure it doesn’t continue to happen?
Lesley Hensell  06:50
So step one, and see you can tell I’ve worked with just 1000s of sellers when I say this, because I just said it. And I’m going to say it again, you have to believe the data. I know it’s really tempting to fight the data. It doesn’t even matter if some of the buyers aren’t telling the truth, because this is what Amazon beliefs, because Amazon sides with the buyer, not the seller, they believe the data. So you have to believe the debt data. So you have to believe all the data, collect all the data, and then really try and make real change now when so when they say something’s at risk of removal, or you get the voice of the customer warnings, you can go in and parse that sometimes it really isn’t on you, the AI the artificial intelligence that Amazon is saying that because something was an accidental order by five people somehow that means you’ve got a voice of the customer problem. So that’s obviously a mis category, mis categorization of data and you can move on and not worry about that one. But if there is something where you’re seeing consistent comments, you’ve got to take action.
Lesley Hensell  08:01
So a quick example, I had a client selling a bundled shampoo and conditioner. They kept getting comments that people were receiving two shampoos, and this guy fought me to no end. We’re sending a shampoo and conditioner. These people are all lying. They just want free stuff. But I mean 12 orders, 15 orders, 20 orders. Obviously you have a problem. I’m like, please just go in your warehouse. And look, he went and looked they were doing it wrong. They were bundling it wrong and sending it off to FBA and incorrect bundles. If you take action, and you’re watching voice of the customer, when you have two or three of those come in, before Amazon’s even yelling at you think how much better off you are from not having all those returns?
Ben Donovan  08:46
Yeah, definitely. Do you recommend people go in there like on a weekly basis monthly basis? Voice of the Customer? Does it depend on volume? I suppose
Lesley Hensell  08:56
it’s very much dependent on volume because there are some accounts where we have clients who have someone assigned to look hourly. Because they have so much to take daily. Yeah, yeah, because they have so much you know, there are sellers out there that do more than a billion dollars on Amazon and so they are continually monitoring voice of the customer. If you’re an average seller you definitely need to look at it weekly, monthly is too long. The reason it’s too long is if you’re actively sending in new shipments there’s always opportunities for problems in those shipments the wrong item you know bad stickering or even a problem at Amazon with how they received the inventory. You know how though randomly re sticker something and properly some time for no apparent reason? These things happen and you need to catch them early on.
Ben Donovan  09:44
Yeah. When we talk about you know, issues with Amazon and frustrations with Seller Support. Can you give our listeners any kind of insight because you deal with Seller Support issues, appeals day in, day out Why does it have such a bad reputation? What is going on behind the scenes that makes Seller Support? So frustrating to deal with? Is there something we don’t see? That’s just is it the volume, what was going on?
Lesley Hensell  10:12
It’s really the same problem you see at most tech oriented companies and companies that have large call centers, where they have high turnover, and not good enough training. And so they, you might remember, when Amazon relaunched brand registry not long ago, the support was amazing for about six months. And then it got just as bad as Seller Support. It’s because the people who built that offering, were actually doing the support for six months. And then they rotated in all new people. And it’s garbage, just like Seller Support. So a lot of it is turnover, Amazon also believes in rotating people into different departments continually at all levels. And because of that, you know, I get it. From one viewpoint, like I understand, you’re taking ideas to different departments and building well rounded personnel. I understand all that. But while the institutional knowledge of that department just leaves, and you’ve got all new people, so I don’t think it’s going to chain it change anytime soon, I do have a couple of suggestions, if you are getting the same stupid answers from Seller Support.
Lesley Hensell  11:32
So when you when you write back to them, it’s important to state clearly. And in Amazonian language, if you can find out what that is. to state clearly, I need help with and then state what you need. You have to state in the first line, my product is miscategorized, it should be in kitchen. I need help with this. Then number two, you say, I have already bullet point bullet point bullet point. I’ve already uploaded my new flat file. I’ve already reached out to whoever I’ve already contacted Seller Support four times, and no one will help me. So you just have quick bullets, what you’ve already done. Just doing that increases the opportunity of them actually fixing it by probably 50%.
Ben Donovan  12:28
Wow, that’s some great insight and will be very helpful for a lot of our listeners. That’s really good. Thank you. I could ask lots of questions about the ineptitude of Seller Support, but I’ll get so frustrated that I just won’t move off. So we’ll, we’ll move on just so that people listening as well. It doesn’t just bring up bad memories. A lot of our listeners are independent sellers, maybe vendors, you know, and they have a quote unquote, small business on Amazon. It’s a big, big platform continues to grow. What are some of the things in this as you mentioned, inflationary environment? What are some of the things that these independent sellers can do to continue to seed code to to continue to succeed? Sorry, on this, you know, maturing platform, because it is maturing, right is becoming a bit more expensive to advertise. There’s lots of dynamics at play, what can independent sellers do to continue to succeed?
Lesley Hensell  13:24
I think the money that is to be made is in niches, really finding niche, excuse me niche products, that you’re not going to see as much competition, or there might be competitors out there, but they aren’t as educated and they aren’t really great sellers on Amazon. But you can figure that out by using a helium 10 Or a Jungle Scout. You can use these tools do the research. And you can find niches where where there’s a reasonable number of products being sold, you know, 30 to 50 units per month. Not really any good advertising, not great PPC not a beautiful detail page, these things do exist where there’s demand, but there could be more demand if it was done right. And really the top competitors aren’t killing it. I think there’s great opportunity still there. And that also keeps you away from the large name brands and the giant sellers who it’s going to be really difficult to compete.
Ben Donovan  14:26
Yeah, yeah, definitely. What do you think about everything that’s going on with Amazon and the, you know, the competition, there seem to be you know, abusing their position or the lawsuits they’re facing especially there’s a lot in the UK at the moment, about you know, I searched the other day and I posted on Twitter, I searched for the brand anchor. And the first result was, you know, highlighted here’s what here’s something from one of our brands. And you know, the search intent is clearly for the brand anchor, but Amazon put as the first result their own brand You know, to me, that just seems so disingenuous like, what’s, what do you see as the development of this Amazon gonna continue to be aggressive like this? Are they gonna have to call it back out? How do you feel about where this is going?
Lesley Hensell  15:13
You know, this is so frustrating to me, because Amazon is inviting legislation that none of us want, like no seller should want these antitrust bills, because when you dive deep into them, they could actually destroy the third party marketplace, like require it to not exist, they’re so extreme. So Amazon is doing this stupid stuff with these, when you look at the revenue that they have on the platform, it’s like less than 1% of the revenue on the platform. So that, you know, going to people’s manufacturers, who, and trying to essentially have a successful private label sellers, manufacturer, manufacturer competitive product for one of Amazon’s brands, that is so sleazy. And using this data that they are not supposed to be using, it is in all of Amazon’s training and rules, there are employee, all the employees have to sign these agreements, saying that they’re not going to use third party data this way, and they do it and everyone knows they do it, and they’ve gone to the media. It makes me so angry, because they are courting trouble. And, you know, there was a big problem last year with this, Amazon standards for brands policy, which is still continuing, but less so where they were trying to force sellers to price a certain way. And third party sellers, not vendors, and they’re not allowed to do that it is price fixing. And it’s illegal. And now that has mostly stopped. Because a lot of attorneys general in the United States got pretty angry about it as they should. I don’t know what it will take for someone inside of Amazon to say, you know, how about we just follow existing law? That’d be kind of cool. Because if we did, maybe all of these legislatures and governments would leave us alone. So I don’t know the answer to that question. I because I think it defies all reason, I think what they are doing defies absolutely all reason they’re asking for trouble that none of us need.
Ben Donovan  17:21
Yeah, yeah, it’s going to be very interesting to see how it plays out differently. So in terms of your client base is obviously very wide ranging, you would have some very successful sellers that you work with, what are you seeing as the keys again, in this environment going into 2023? Even? What are some of the things that you think sellers need to be doing in order to maximize revenue, but at the same time, reduce risks? Because I think we’ve all seen the platform change over recent years that there was so much shady business going on that Amazon are beginning to clamp down on it. And you do have to play a little bit safer. If you want to think long term. What are you seeing as some of the most successful traits of sellers that are, I don’t want to say risk free, because nothing ever is but you know, say things that sellers are doing to maximize revenue.
Lesley Hensell  18:17
So first is doing whatever you can do to really develop a true brand. Just because it’s online, it doesn’t mean it’s not a brand. And that branding isn’t important. There are still people out there selling what they have as branded products on the platform that have pretty reasonable sales volume that haven’t gotten their trademark and done Amazon brand registry. You’ve got to do these basic things to protect yourself, protect your brand. And then you you develop the a plus content, or whatever it’s called. Now I’ve just slipping my mind, you know, the advanced content, we’re highlighting all of your products, so that every time you do a brand launch or a product launch, it’s not like you’re starting from zero, you already have search terms on Amazon for your brand, you already have SEO built in, and keywords around your other products in your brand. I know that that seems like a very broad answer. But taking that view can really help you if you’re not like the seller who just finds random product over here, random product over here, random product over here, and is marketing them all separately instead of holistically where it’s really working together.
Ben Donovan  19:31
Yeah. And speaking of build it be common speak myself. Speaking of building brands, you guys would work a lot with aggregators, from what I’ve seen in different events and different things you guys are closely related with connect with them a lot, I’m sure. How do you feel that side of the business is going obviously it became a huge thing in the last 18 months? quieten down now somewhat? Where do you see the trends of mergers and acquisitions? I’m in the Amazon space going.
Lesley Hensell  20:03
So that is such a great question, lots of discussions about that in the last few weeks with lots of different people. If you’ve built a nice brand that you would like to sell, there are still so many opportunities for that. And they go beyond just the aggregators at this point. There are still aggregators that are hungry to buy and paying really nice multiples. There’s also private equity out there. There are some brand accelerators that in the past have only managed brands for customers that are now also acquiring brands of their own as well. So if you want to sell, sell, you can still do it, you may not get the same multiple you got last October, but you can still sell have some of these are good with you walking away in 30 days, some want to keep the owner on as an operator for one to two years and have an earnout. Now, the aggregator space, I think it’s just like any other industry that develops really fast and hot. And then there’s a shakeout, it’s kind of a normal course of doing business thing, right? We work with a lot of aggregators, who are, I would say, a little more conservative, really focused on the numbers. And when they brought in brands were really careful and choosy and tried to keep the operators on and those are the ones right now who are really hanging on and still doing pretty well. An interesting kind of reverse opportunity. There are aggregators, now putting some of their brands on the market, and their opportunities to buy those for nickels and dimes on the dollar. Because they figured out that those brands didn’t fit their model, or they didn’t have an operator who could actually manage it well. So if you’re a long term seller, and you’re a good operator, there are opportunities to go pick up one of these for a few $100,000 and have a nice business that you could pretty quickly grow.
Ben Donovan  22:03
Yeah. Wow. You mentioned about things that these aggregators are looking for, you know, a good brand. Could you speak to some of the features of in 2022 Going into 2023, the things that acquirers of these brands are looking for, obviously, good brand, but But what does that mean? What are some of the things that people that are selling right now should look to build over the next six to 12 months into their business, that’s going to make it more valuable.
Lesley Hensell  22:31
So they want recognizable branding and packaging as if you were going to take it into a retail store. So you know, a lot of Amazon only brands, when you receive the product, like if it’s a product in a bottle, it’s just the bottle, there’s no nice box that looks nicely branded, they’re looking for things that are very nicely branded, they want multiple products that make sense in the brand family, they don’t want to just grow the one product one hero asin won’t do it, if you’ve got 10 to 15 ASINs. That makes sense as a brand story, that is what they get super excited about. They want to see that they can actually improve on your numbers. So that means you have to have all of your numbers very clearly written down and understandable. A lot of sellers don’t have beautiful books, you’ve got to take the time and invest with an accountant or an investment banker to have really gorgeous books that tell a story that show your contribution margin, so that you can maximize the contribution margin is really important, that will help you maximize what you get in the end. They they really understand that number.
Ben Donovan  23:47
Yeah, that’s great. And then just rounding things out, finishing up on the topic of risk, and, you know, avoiding or minimizing risk, there’s always going to be risks when selling on Amazon. What I mean, I’d be interested to hear if I’m putting you on the spot here, but if you have any, you know, crazy stories of, you know, Hero skews that face, you know, great challenges and how they’re overcome, because I sometimes I think early on as an Amazon seller, I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t say I lost sleep. But I definitely was very nervous about the Amazon platform. You know, getting hijacked, getting a listing removed, this kind of thing. But the more I’ve gone on over time, the more you do see that these things are solvable. But you still do see horror stories in these horror stories where accounts get shut shut down for months on end listings get shut down for months on end there. Are there things that are like common themes that people don’t talk about that are going on behind the scenes, or is there a reality behind this crazy Amazon shoot and then ask questions is does that actually happen that kind of size?
Lesley Hensell  24:55
There are I’ve seen situations where ASINs were taken down and they were down For months, and it was because the product owner had not done what they needed to do from the beginning. And I’ve seen cases that were taken down for months, that they just weren’t appealing well and came to us and we fixed it in a day. So I’ll give you a couple of examples. There is a cleaning product. That is huge on Amazon. It was we worked with them a long time ago, then they were acquired by an aggregator and have exploded back before they were acquired, they got taken down several times for complaints, because people would complain about the odor of the product, or they would complain about an adverse reaction of someone in the household to the product. This client at the beginning didn’t have any testing at all on his product to show that it was safe, and he didn’t even have a COA the first time we worked with him. And you know, you’ve you’ve so Thing Number one, you’ve got to have the basic documents in place. Because if you end up having to do testing, it can take a long time to get it done, especially right now all the labs are really backed up. And so your your downtime is I’m waiting for Docs. And Amazon isn’t going to accept your manufacturer’s documents a lot of the time they want it from an independent lab.
Lesley Hensell  26:22
Another example there’s patch testing, each HR IPT testing, there are some products that require patch testing, like a lotion, for example, because it stays on your skin. And I’ve had several sellers of beauty products who had never done patch testing, it takes six weeks or eight weeks or longer sometimes 12. And that’s on you because you didn’t know that you needed the patch testing, then there are just been there’s just products I would never sell. Because because you’re kind of asking for it. And so I think the first question a seller should ask when they’re contemplating this new private label product is how can people hurt themselves or others with it? And do I want that liability in that potential takedown? So two great examples. A kitchen blowtorch, bad QA at the factory in China, a seam was opening up along the top of the blowtorch and then fire was just like pouring out of the side. And it and I mean, you know it’s that’s that’s just bad. And then another fire story. A seat heater, it’s like a pad that you put on your your car seat and plug into the cigarette lighter to heat up. And it had a warning it on the package it did say Not for use on vehicles manufactured before, like 1976 or something. Well, of course, do you really believe people are going to read that and follow it. So someone with a 1960s car plugged it in and his entire car was engulfed in flames.
Lesley Hensell  27:53
So there are just certain products where if you’re not a gigantic company with you know, unlimited lawyers, you should really just think twice and say do I really want to go down that road? You know, supplements is another one. It’s just people, someone’s tummy is always going to hurt y’all. And when their tummy hurts, and they complain to Amazon, your product gets taken down, and then we have to prove it should go back up. And do we get most of those backup? Yes, but you have one bad manufacturing run. And it goes downhill real fast.
Ben Donovan  28:27
What do you think about programs that Amazon introduced to try and help with some of the challenges sellers face like transparency? For instance? Is it just another revenue making scheme? Or is it actually worthwhile?
Lesley Hensell  28:40
Transparency is I think the best paid program at Amazon. There aren’t very many paid programs that Amazon that I’m a fan of. Because usually, to be frank, Amazon does a terrible job. If you ask them to label your inventory, they do a terrible job they put the wrong stickers on if you ask them to what’s what’s the other thing they’ve really been pushing late oh SAS core, where you pay them $5,000 A month and a percentage of revenue and they allegedly solve your problems there. Unless you have one of the 10% of account reps that are good, don’t waste your money. Transparency is awesome. You know why? It’s because Amazon doesn’t actually do anything. So they create the 2d barcode and you make sure it gets on all the products that that you’re authorizing to be sold at the warehouse right? And then all they have to do is check to make sure that the product has the 2d barcode which is like hard coded into their system that they have to make sure for that asin that it’s got the market so you’re not really depending on them transparencies awesome I’m I wouldn’t pay for pretty much anything else.
Ben Donovan  29:48
Yeah, does it does transparency solve hijackers completely?
Lesley Hensell  29:54
No 95% You know everything has breakage
Ben Donovan  29:57
Yeah, yeah. such as Spoken like a true, true professional. It’s good, I like it. Good. This has been super helpful. I felt like I could, you know, ask you questions for hours, but you’ll start charging me for consultancy. So I’ll bring it to a close. But I personally used riverbend and found you guys to be very, very helpful. Where can people find out more about what you do and yourself connect with everything that you’re doing?
Lesley Hensell  30:28
So you can find us online at Riverbend And we also have a phone number there of a US and the UK and some other countries as well. And we actually answer our phones you all we like have humans to answer the phone. And we’ll tell you if we can help you or not. And if we can’t we refer you to someone who can. Also if you go over on LinkedIn, and look for Leslie console, I post new content about Amazon almost every day of the week. And I’m also happy to take questions there. If someone has a challenge. They want to know if there’s a quick easy fix. I definitely love to help when I can. And if not see if there’s something we can do as a company for you.
Ben Donovan  31:09
Yeah, that’s an awesome resource. We appreciate that, Lesley, we’ll leave links in the show notes and description below. So guys get on top of that. If you’ve got any problems with Amazon, which most of you probably will most leaks. Check all of that information out. And thank you, Lesley for coming on the show today. We really appreciate your time.
Lesley Hensell  31:26
Thank you so much for having me.
Ben Donovan  31:28
No, it’s been a pleasure. Awesome. Thank you guys for listening to the show today. We really appreciate you checking the Show out. If you have liked it, make sure you tune in for another episode next week, and we’ll see you real soon.