Lesley Hensell of Riverbend Consulting: “Don’t just sell one way on Amazon”

Don’t just sell one way on Amazon. To be successful on the platform, you can’t just be a reseller or a drop-shipper or a private-label seller. You should be selling through at least two of these methods because if your sources dry up, or there are supply chain issues in one area, you still have […]

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Don’t just sell one way on Amazon. To be successful on the platform, you can’t just be a reseller or a drop-shipper or a private-label seller. You should be selling through at least two of these methods because if your sources dry up, or there are supply chain issues in one area, you still have the other to support you.

As a part of my interview series about “Five non-intuitive things you need to know to run a very successful Amazon business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lesley Hensell.

Lesley Hensell is a partner and co-founder with Riverbend Consulting, whose 50+ employees solve critical problems and offer effective growth strategies for sellers on Amazon and other ecommerce platforms. Lesley oversees Riverbend’s client services team. She has personally helped hundreds of third-party sellers get their suspended Amazon accounts and ASINs back up and running.

Lesley leverages two decades as a small business consultant to solve the underlying business issues in online retail businesses, resulting in improved operations and profitability. She has been an Amazon seller for a decade, bringing first-hand knowledge on what it takes to be successful on the channel. A lifelong Longhorns fan, Lesley earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and volunteering for A Wish With Wings, a wish-granting organization for little Texans with life-threatening conditions.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve been an Amazon seller for more than a decade, and I have built a successful business on the channel. Over time, I saw a distinct need among Amazon sellers for support in solving urgent problems like getting suspended accounts and ASINs back up and running quickly. So, I decided to become both a seller and a consultant.

I also bring more than two decades of experience as a small business and marketing consultant. I can apply this to the common operational issues many Amazon sellers face. Using this expertise, I co-founded Riverbend Consulting with Joe Zalta, who brings decades of retail knowledge to the table. Today, our team of more than 50 employees solves critical problems and offers effective growth strategies for sellers on Amazon and other ecommerce platforms.

Can you explain to our readers why you are an authority about selling on Amazon.com?

I built my Amazon store from the ground up, starting with selling used books and building inventory through retail arbitrage at discount stores. My business slowly morphed, and I became an approved reseller with direct manufacturer relationships, mostly focusing on health and beauty products and apparel. Last year, we did $4.5 million in sales.

At Riverbend, we’ve helped — and continue to help — thousands of sellers both big and small. We’ve built a particular niche in assisting VIP sellers, including multiple top 100 sellers on Amazon and three of the top 10 sellers. But that experience does not preclude us from working with smaller businesses who find themselves facing critical, revenue-impacting crises. Beyond sellers, we also support vendors who are facing suspensions or urgent issues affecting their brands.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this career?

A top Amazon seller (doing more than $1 billion in revenue per year on the channel), who was not a client of ours, contacted me out of the blue on a Saturday with an emergency.

Their account had been suspended for a listing violation, which can happen easily if you have thousands of products in your store like they did. And this happened during the month of October, which is close enough to the holiday season to cause some panic for the seller.

They couldn’t believe that Amazon would take down an account of that size for that reason. So, we worked with the seller’s C-level team throughout that weekend and quickly got them reinstated. They were so happy and impressed that they then became our first ongoing top-10 client. We still work with them on an almost daily basis.

That event launched us into servicing the VIP realm of sellers. We learned through that experience that there is a huge market of massive online sellers needing similar help because Amazon can hit sellers both large and small with violations that may lead to suspensions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My example is more of a frustrating lesson learned. In my seller business, I made the tremendous mistake of not checking a product’s hazmat status. Though I had hazmat approval with Amazon’s FBA program, Amazon refused to ship the product, which has a hazmat status that makes it almost impossible to ship affordably. I ended up with 500 units of a product that couldn’t be shipped by regular U.S. mail, nor could it be sent through Amazon. I ended up having to give it all away, losing thousands of dollars. Moral of the story: make sure to verify your product can be shipped affordably, whether you do it yourself or send it to FBA.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

At Riverbend, we founded an initiative called Project Retail. We help private-label sellers on Amazon place their top-selling products in brick-n-mortar retail stores. The biggest challenge for most Amazon sellers can be cash flow, because the channel only pays you for each individual product at the time it is purchased. However, most brick-and-mortar retailers will purchase your products in bulk to sell in their stores. This can be an attractive model for sellers with a high-volume product, since the up-front purchase from retailers will balance their cash flow and minimize risk. It can also support investment in branding and other marketing initiatives. Most built-on-Amazon brands, however, do not have the necessary relationships with physical retail stores to make the transition to brick-n-mortar. That’s where we come in.

Ok. Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. You are a seasoned Amazon expert. Can you share with our readers five, non-intuitive, insider tips, in order to be as successful as possible on Amazon? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Don’t just sell one way on Amazon. To be successful on the platform, you can’t just be a reseller or a drop-shipper or a private-label seller. You should be selling through at least two of these methods because if your sources dry up, or there are supply chain issues in one area, you still have the other to support you. For example, one of my clients specializes in beauty products. For years, she has successfully sourced products from a well-known retail store and resold them on Amazon. But she also worked directly with a manufacturer to create unique bundles of their makeup products to sell on Amazon. During the nationwide shutdown last spring, my client couldn’t go to her usual retail stores to source the products she typically resold. But she was able to continue receiving shipments from her manufacturing vendor, which created the cash flow she needed to survive.
  2. If you’re selling your own products on Amazon, prioritize risk management first. That means having liability and umbrella insurance policies, conducting all relevant testing for your products, and being able to provide all that information to Amazon. Unfortunately, buyers can make false claims about your products or misuse your products. Or worse, your product could harm someone — even if you took every precaution. My clients have had complaints claiming that their patio heater caught fire, their digestive supplement sent a customer to the ER, and their pomade made someone’s hair fall out. If you have high-quality QA and testing, you can defend against these claims — and keep your product live on Amazon.
  3. If you’re launching products on Amazon, be prepared to develop an exciting brand. There is intense competition on Amazon today, so you must be willing to invest in A+ content, video ads, a website, and all the traditional marketing strategies that brands have used in the past. You don’t need a huge budget, but you need to look attractive and credible to buyers, while putting enough behind your marketing to have your products show up in web searches. Many of my clients have developed incredible private label brands on Amazon. For example, one very successful client sells eight figures a year in the home fitness category. During the peak holiday season last year, he invested in both pay-per-click (PPC) ads and Editorial Recommendations on Amazon. By combining the two, he created a sales spike that was 40% greater than he expected in December. Now, he’s using our Amazon video production service to make his brand stand out even more.
  4. Don’t believe the lie that you can put in 4–10 hours a week and make a fortune. Amazon isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. As in most businesses, you must put in time and effort to succeed. I recently met a seller who has eight-figure annual revenue in paper goods. For the first two years after launch, he worked around the clock and handled all of the details of his business by himself. Gradually, he was able to add employees and outsource tasks. He’s now in year five of the business and working about 10 to 15 hours a week. He can spend plenty of time on kids, hobbies and travel. But he still has to invest enough time to ensure things are going smoothly with manufacturing, product development, and other critical activities where his expertise has been the key to success.
  5. Outsource to experts whenever you can. There is a global marketplace filled with service providers who know about Amazon and can bring specific expertise to the table. It’s much more dangerous and expensive to handle everything on your own, so working with specialists can help you navigate the waters and avoid pitfalls. Just do your homework before you engage with outside experts to make sure they have the background and business acumen to help you be successful. For example, many of the top-100 sellers on Amazon outsource time-consuming clerical tasks that are important for their Amazon seller accounts. We have built an entire service around answering customer service messages, fixing inventory issues, and getting reimbursements for FBA sellers from Amazon. These can be handled more efficiently and less expensively by our team as an outsource, than if our clients hired full-time employees for the same tasks.

Amazon sellers have a reputation for being great guerilla marketers. Do you use any clever and innovative marketing strategies that you think large legacy companies should consider adopting?

If you can make your product appear multiple times on Page 1 of Amazon’s search results, your sales and conversion rates will soar. Repetition is key. Most big sellers already have pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns. These ad campaigns can boost a product to Page 1. Now, sellers need to add two more elements.

First, get your product placed in an Editorial Recommendation. These are short articles written by a network of trusted publishers, many of which are household names. Editorial Recommendations appear on Page 1 of search.

Then, invest in a high-quality, exciting product video. Don’t just “show and tell” the product. Create a truly branded video that quickly and effectively showcases your product’s benefits. These videos can be used as ads on Amazon — and also land on Page 1 of search.

Here’s where this strategy gets super exciting. Editorial Recommendations and video ads are both highly favored by the Amazon search algorithm. They improve the metrics on PPC ads, driving down costs and increasing overall sales.

Because of the position that you are in, you are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Several years back, you may remember the ice bucket challenge that went viral on social media and raised millions in funds for advanced ALS research. My wish would be to bring that same awareness to childhood cancer, which shockingly receives only 2% of cancer funding each year.

I am the mother of a childhood cancer survivor, and many people don’t realize that those survivors often develop cancer or other health issues as adults too. The treatments they received as children were made for adults and could lead to more cancer down the line. So, it’s not just a childhood issue, it’s a lifetime issue.

I envision a movement of kids supporting kids, where high school and college sporting events promote awareness and fundraising for the cause. These events could provide an opportunity for fans to get swabbed and determine if they’re a bone marrow match and potential donor for a child (or even adult) in need. Childhood cancer needs more awareness and funding for research that would result in more effective treatments and cures.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be aggressive and follow through, and most of your problems will be solved.” My father taught me this quote from a very early age, with its first use in reference to sports. I have come to see that this applies to sports…and to life, and it is something I carry with me as a powerful memory of my father. I now use this in my business and personal life and have also passed it down to my kids.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Jeff Bezos. The evolution of Amazon has impacted people who have made the company a lot of money [i.e., third-party sellers], and not always in a positive way. I don’t think he and his management team fully understand the scope of the challenges that sellers face, and I would love the opportunity to share those challenges with him, walk through many of the tools that are not as effective as planned, and help him understand how Amazon could have better relationships with their sellers and vendors.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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