You always need more in your marketing budget than you think. Advertising online today costs more than it did 10 years ago. If you want to compete with the other brands, you have to invest in marketing. Most underestimate their marketing budgets by 50%. One of my clients sells home fitness products. In the last year, he dramatically increased his marketing budget with Amazon pay-per-click ads, Editorial Recommendations and product video ads. By combining these three techniques — even though it required a huge investment — he created better ROI than any other time in his company’s history.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce 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 operational issues in online retail businesses, resulting in improved 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 joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I’ve been an Amazon seller for over a decade and have built a successful business on the platform over the years. This experience has given me an inside view into what sellers face in the online space, including an almost desperate need among sellers for help and support in solving urgent problems such as getting suspended accounts and ASINs back up and running quickly. So, I decided to become both a seller and a consultant.
I have also accrued more than two decades as a small business consultant, focusing on operational issues that companies face. My company, Riverbend Consulting, helps our clients take a data-driven view of the problems in their Amazon seller accounts. We solve their issues with Amazon, which in turn results in a healthier bottom line.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Before Riverbend was founded, my partner Joe Zalta had his Amazon storefront suspended. He unsuccessfully worked with another service provider before being referred to me. I was able to get his account reinstated.
Through that experience, we realized there was a very real, growing need for experts who could help sellers navigate through those types of urgent issues within online marketplaces. We also saw that with Joe’s sales experience combined with my technical and operations expertise, we could offer a unique value proposition. Thus began Riverbend Consulting, and we’ve been doubling our revenue each year since our founding in 2017.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I first started as a seller, I struggled to figure out what would do well in the marketplace. I was selling on both eBay and Amazon, but there wasn’t a lot of data at the time to help me figure out what would sell best on the various platforms.
Because of this, I sometimes bought the wrong products and couldn’t move them. Or I bought the same products as everyone else and ended up with significant competition that led to selling products at a loss.
From this experience, I learned how important it was to buy shallow and wide before determining a winning product. By making small purchases of a lot of products, I could cast a wider net to determine which products worked best in the marketplace. Until I see evidence of a winning product, I don’t buy a lot of anything at the beginning.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Today, our business with Riverbend Consulting works with hundreds of clients, many of whom are on retainer, and employs more than 50 consultants and ecommerce experts around the world. As a seller, my business reported more than 4.5 million dollars in revenue last year, primarily focusing on health and beauty products.
But this success did not come without setbacks and many lessons learned over the years. Most importantly, we’ve learned you always have to test new things and not let failures stop you or hold you back.
We’re big on the minimum viable product (MVP) model, so we are constantly testing new processes and products to determine what works and if it makes us better. The course of business is never going to be perfect or follow a set path, so you have to continually try new things, test them, make them better, and test again. Otherwise, you’ll never grow and improve.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
There have been times when I’ve gotten really great deals by buying out the remainder of stock, especially for discontinued items that get great reviews, have high star ratings and still have strong demand. However, in the past, I sometimes made the mistake of failing to understand how long it would or wouldn’t take me to turn that stock. I didn’t always understand how much to send to Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) or how much to hold back. Or I didn’t do enough testing to determine how high or low I should set the price, along with other factors. There is nothing worse than getting stuck with 100 piggybanks.
I assumed that I knew the answers, and it came back to bite me sometimes. Today, I’m much more careful, data-driven and meticulous about the decisions I make. And I’ve learned to find joy in my errors, like putting 20 dollars in each piggybank and donating them to a charity for kids.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Sellers on Amazon and other marketplaces, whether solo entrepreneurs or sellers at a massive brand, are still largely alone and largely virtual. Riverbend Consulting is there to help them and give them someone to talk to about their business problems and provide advice. We spend quality time with our clients and really listen to their needs. We also tackle the problems no one else will, providing a lifeline in some cases for clients that are virtually drowning and in real trouble.
I’m reminded of a clothing seller on Amazon. His family business made the hard choice to close their brick-and-mortar locations, instead focusing solely on Amazon. One day, they came into work to discover that Amazon had “frauded” their account. They could not log in, they could not contact Seller Support, their funds were being held, and nobody at Amazon would help them. This is considered an almost impossible situation to solve.
After flailing for a few days, they were referred to Riverbend. I spent a good hour on the phone with them, brainstorming any and all possible reasons this could have happened to their account. During that time, there were tears shed, and the owner told me he was days away from missing a mortgage payment and laying off family members, who would then be in serious financial trouble.
I got very aggressive with his appeals, reaching out to various teams and executives at Amazon. After about two weeks, the business was reinstated on Amazon and funds were released. Our client even got what we fondly call the Amazon “apology letter,” saying that Amazon erred out of an abundance of caution. My client could not have been happier — and his family’s financial situation was again whole.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You need to find your people. There are marketplace seller meet-ups, conferences, webinars, Facebook groups, etc., out there to connect you with a larger community of like-minded professionals. If you are struggling alone with your eCommerce problems, it can be very lonely and discouraging — let alone expensive if you are tackling initiatives on your own that may end in costly mistakes. Getting involved with a group, either in-person or online, can give you an avenue to vent, learn and grow. Also building a team of experts around you — whether in-house or outsourced — who have “been there and done that” can be invaluable when navigating the online marketplace.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My partner at Riverbend, Joe Zalta. We work well together, and we have very complementary skillsets but the same values and goals. We make each other better at our jobs. At one time, we were both “free agents” on the market, and I helped him get unsuspended from Amazon. Joe is a visionary. He could see how our skills would mesh and create a foundation on which we could build a successful business. When I was trying to figure out my next business adventure, Joe called. And called. And called. Until I was ready to embrace the opportunity. Ultimately, partnering with Joe is one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life.
As a past suspended seller, Joe fully understands how stressed out our clients are. His insights and experiences have helped me create a service team that makes our clients feel loved and heard. We’ve developed multiple levels of backup and communication for clients — and within our own team. It’s all based on what Joe would have wanted during a suspension experience.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
We have several clients who sell multichannel — both in stores and online. A lot of them shifted their selections and their inventory to Amazon and other online marketplaces during the pandemic to accommodate the online shopping shift that took place. Beforehand, their allocation was completely different, or they had only certain products that they sold online. They have now adjusted their inventory and business processes to make everything available online.
Other clients who are uncomfortable with putting all their inventory online, for a variety of reasons, have opted to instead create online-only or Amazon-only versions of their products as a compromise. Either way, being online is a must for growing in the current environment.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
They need to invest in developing their brand across platforms because a well-branded company or product line will stand out in the marketplace over China-based brands. This is because many Chinese companies aren’t currently good at branding to American audiences, and they don’t fully understand what appeals to the American consumer.
You also need to provide products of good quality, along with impeccable customer service. In many cases, Chinese products have little to no quality control because many Chinese manufacturers view QC as an extra benefit, not a requirement. Plus, with the extensive ship times between China and North America, Chinese companies are not as willing to work with customers on returns or other issues that may arise with purchases. If an American company is sourcing their products from a Chinese manufacturer, it’s critical that quality control be built into the contract and spot-checked on-site.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
- C-Level executives will sometimes assume that selling on Amazon, Walmart or other online marketplaces works the same way as selling in a brick-and-mortar retailer. They have an “if you build it, they will come” attitude. Unfortunately, this is not like shelf placement in a store. Without embracing and leveraging the marketing tools each platform offers, you will not maximize your sales — even if you’re a fantastic brand!
- Talk to — or hire — the experts. Learn about the rules that govern the platform where you’re launching. And be prepared to invest heavily in marketing your brand with ads, videos, excellent content and more.
- Also, if you’re going to sell direct-to-consumer (D2C), it is possible to be successful. But you have to commit to a significant marketing spend to build awareness of your brand and of your online store to drive traffic, otherwise, it will be “crickets” in there.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Logistics. Too many people assume that it easy, cheap or that there’s a clear-cut path for moving products domestically or from overseas to where they need to go. There are so many variables and moving parts, however, that it can be easy to miss details and make mistakes.
Do you need warehousing space? How do you make a deal on shipping products from overseas with higher expenses, deposits, port backlogs, etc.? Any missteps in logistics are magnified, and you’ll pay for it, thanks in large part to Amazon shifting consumer expectations towards next-day and same-day product delivery, as well as changes in the supply chain during the pandemic.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
We use several software tools, including ListingMirror, which simplifies multi-channel product listings and pushes them across all platforms. We also use A2X, which helps with accounting for all Shopify sites and other online marketplaces. In addition, Teikametrics provides advertising optimization for marketplaces such as Walmart and Amazon.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
We are seeing a dramatic uptick in the need for high-quality videos in product listings, especially for products that are difficult to understand, use or assemble, or whose dimensions are hard to visualize. When a brand invests in an exciting or informative video, their conversion rates definitely increase.
You also must make use of A+ and other enhanced content where possible, as it supports the searchability function of your product on Google and on the individual platforms as well. This includes simple things like adding excellent lifestyle images, solid keywords, etc.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Just because you specialize in online business does not mean that you should avoid face-to-face or voice interaction. You need to have a way for your customers to easily connect with you and receive in-person, real-time help and support either on the phone, in chat (written or video) or in-store.
You must also make excellent customer service a part of your brand’s DNA. This means addressing comments, questions and reviews posted about your product, and attending to product requests, returns and issues in a timely and professional manner.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
Prevent bad reviews from happening in the first place, because once they hit an online platform, it is hard to get them removed.
You should review your returns every week and look for any products with high return rates. Also, check your packaging. A huge percentage of problems are a result of bad packaging. If you can improve the unboxing experience, you will improve your reviews.
In addition, make sure that the listings for your products are accurate because detail pages sometimes get inadvertently or unknowingly changed by the platform or by another seller. If the item doesn’t match the description, the customer will complain.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Do not limit yourself to one platform. We’re all comfortable with one platform, but you need to diversify so you’re not at the mercy of that platform. Being on more than two platforms is even better and will help ensure cash flow if you’re having problems with one. I’ve seen more than a few sellers — even of large and well-developed brands — permanently banned from Amazon or eBay. One supplement seller I know lost their Amazon selling privileges for all time after being caught manipulating the platform with fake reviews — more than once. He was left with millions of dollars in inventory and no other well-established channel for selling the product.
- Sell something that no one else is selling. If you are a brand owner, you need to have online offers not available in retail stores. If you’re an Amazon or other marketplace seller, you need to offer products as an exclusive to that platform. If you’re a long-time seller, find a way to private label your products through a top eCommerce platform — that way you are not always competing on price and being pushed to the bottom. One of my clients is a household-name brand of cleaning supplies. They create special Amazon-only bundles of their products that no other seller can find via a wholesaler or retailer. This protects my client’s ability to control its presence on Amazon.
- You always need more in your marketing budget than you think. Advertising online today costs more than it did 10 years ago. If you want to compete with the other brands, you have to invest in marketing. Most underestimate their marketing budgets by 50%. One of my clients sells home fitness products. In the last year, he dramatically increased his marketing budget with Amazon pay-per-click ads, Editorial Recommendations and product video ads. By combining these three techniques — even though it required a huge investment — he created better ROI than any other time in his company’s history.
- Diversify your vendors and partnerships. For example, if you rely on a product manufacturer, have a backup. If you need a 3PL, have several you work with. It may be easier to manage a single-vendor partnership, but that’s very risky considering the current issues with global supply chains. Diversity is the key to ensuring your supply chains remain open. For example, a private-label beauty brand was using a contract manufacturer to create its Vitamin C serum. When they had outside testing done on the products, they discovered manufacturing defects that created a risk for the brand. Thank goodness, they had another contract manufacturer on the backburner, which meant only a two-week delay in the manufacturing process. (The brand fired their original manufacturer, thank goodness!)
- Plan for the time required to recoup your original investment. Some brands never make money online. They take every penny and put it back into products so they can keep up with increasing demand for their items. In the end, their brand will be worth more if they decide to sell it. It may not be realistic for a seller to take a big personal income and expect aggressive revenue growth for the business at the same time.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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 funds for ALS advanced research. I wish there were the same initiatives for childhood cancer, which shockingly receives only 2% of cancer funding each year.
I’m 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. It’s often because the treatments they received were made for adults, not children, and could lead to more cancer down the line. So, it’s not just a childhood issue, but 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.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!