Blog > MyFBAPrep Interviews > Monitor Your Return Reports: A Chat With Lesley Hensell of Riverbend Consulting

Monitor Your Return Reports: A Chat With Lesley Hensell of Riverbend Consulting

In this video, Rachel Go chats with Lesley Hensell, Co-Founder of Riverbend Consulting. Rachel and Lesley discuss her background, what brought her to start Riverbend Consulting, how she became known as “the suspension lady,” her advice for merchants to protect their accounts, and much more.

Transcript below.

Lesley’s background

Rachel Andrea Go: To kick things off, would you mind sharing a little bit about your background and how it led to where you are today?

Lesley Hensell: Sure thing. So, I’m co-founder of Riverbend Consulting, also known as the Suspension Lady by a lot of people out there. But I actually got my start selling on Amazon way back in 2010. So, I was one of those “Mommy-preneurs” that we all know now that have grown through Amazon over the years. I had a special needs kid who was not doing well in school, and we decided to homeschool them. And at the time, I was an old-school consultant and I could not maintain that schedule of doing client calls all day long and homeschool a special needs kid, and I had a toddler, too, so that wasn’t gonna work. So, I found Amazon, started selling nights and weekends when my husband was home, and did that for many, many years. Then, I started meeting people at conferences who were having challenges on Amazon, so I started using that old-school consulting background to help them out when they would get suspended and other challenges with their accounts.

So, now we’ve grown Riverbend to more than 85 employees and we help thousands of clients all the way from the biggest sellers on Amazon all the way down to mom and pops like me because I still have a small seller account that my family runs now to pay college tuition for that special needs kid.

Rachel Andrea Go: Can you tell me more about that trigger event that led you to start Riverbend Consulting?

Lesley Hensell: Absolutely. I had actually, on my own, been working on suspensions for sellers. So, it was all word of mouth; people would get referred to me, and I would help them write their plan of action and get reinstated. And one of the clients that was referred to me was this guy from New York named Joe Salta, and I got him reinstated really quickly, and he had already been using someone else [and] been hitting a wall. And a couple weeks later, he called me up and said, “You know, I’ve got this really strong sales background, and you know how to do this suspension thing, so we should do this together.” So we did. So now, we’re like the “Mutt and Jeff” of the suspension world. So, if you ever see Joe, he’s, like, a super tall, skinny guy, he’s got the Brooklyn accent, he’s really young, and then you’ve got me: I’m not so young, I’m a lot shorter, and I’m from Texas. So, we’re kind of an odd couple but we’ve done really well and we have a great time helping Amazon sellers.

Account & listing suspensions (and how to avoid them)

Rachel Andrea Go: What are some common reasons that accounts get suspended?

Lesley Hensell: So, that’s an interesting question because it kind of cycles depending on what Amazon is focused on at that particular moment in time. Right now, we’re seeing something kind of wild because, back when suspensions first started really picking up around 2012, 2013, everything was for inauthentic. And then, for many years—the past many years, that’s backed off, and you would get inauthentic suspensions for ASINs, but not for a whole account. Well, golly gee, guess what they’re doing now? They’re taking down entire accounts for inauthentic. That’s been happening more. 

Also, there are so many for linked accounts. These are very frustrating for sellers because it’s usually one of two things. I mean, there are bad actors who have multiple accounts for bad guy reasons, but those aren’t my clients and the people who need help. It’s usually either you actually are connected to another account that got suspended, but it was from 10 years ago when you were in college, or it was a roommate you had at one point in time who screwed up and it wasn’t you — those are really frustrating — or you can’t figure out who it is. They’ll even tell you the name of the account. You’re like, “I’ve never heard of that,” and so proving a negative is always really difficult. Those are frustrating, but they usually do get solved.

Rachel Andrea Go: Do you think that this new emergence has anything to do with AI and how people are posting using AI?

Lesley Hensell: That’s a great question. Actually, I think where that’s going to have more impact is on listing suspensions — things that are related to how you’re creating your listing detail pages, because AI doesn’t respect things like the rules about variations. And so I think that is going to be problematic for some sellers who are over-dependent on AI to create their listing detail page. I also think AI is going to be used by bad guys to attack sellers. So, black cats are going to use AI to insert words into reviews and store feedback to try and get their competitors taken down.

Rachel Andrea Go: So, how are—what are two to three steps that you recommend merchants take to avoid suspensions or avoid being attacked by those “bad actors”?

Lesley Hensell: So, the first one is to really pay attention to returns reports. I know that sounds so basic, but you would be surprised at even large sellers that I say, “Hey, have you pulled your returns report?” And they’re like, “What returns report?” So, they don’t even realize it’s in there.

There’s a great FBA returns report you can download, and you can sort it by the reason for the return, and you can find out—I know, I know that a lot of buyers lie, I get it, or they don’t understand the product or they made a mistake, but there’s also a lot of buyers who buy your product and can tell you straight up what you’ve done wrong. So, like, I had a client who—they were getting complaints over and over for this particular item of clothing, and when you looked at the returns report, almost every complaint was, “It runs too small.” Well, that’s not some conspiracy — it runs too small! And so you can learn so much from the returns report to improve your ASINs, because, remember, every time you have a return, it costs you so much money and it impacts your profitability. So that’s number one.

And number two is, actually, advice that goes against the advice that I used to give and it’s because of how Amazon has changed their enforcement, which is you really have to appeal every ASIN that is suspended now. It used to [be] you could just say, “Whatevs, I’m not gonna sell that anymore. I’m ignoring that.” Or you could click the button that says “Acknowledge.” You do not want to click “Acknowledge,” and I’m going to tell you why, and this is new and it’s really bad. We’ve had sellers gated out of selling brands because they either didn’t appeal or they clicked “Acknowledge” too many times. So Amazon is saying “Oh, you’re not trustworthy on this brand. You had three ASIN suspensions for this brand.” And when they gate you out, it is so hard to get it back. It’s not like a regular appeal; we’re going outside of all of the usual channels, and they are really difficult. 

We’re eventually getting them solved most of the time, but not all the time, and it sometimes is taking three, four, five months. So, you really do have to appeal all of the ASINs, ignore if you’re still in the green on that account health, because, you know—I had one seller who sells a beauty brand that’s kind of a nicer brand. They’ve been selling it 10 years. They had three ASINs suspended over the summer, didn’t appeal, and then they got gated out. So, we had to first appeal the three ASINs and we got all of those resolved, Amazon accepted the appeals and invoices — we’re still working to get the brand ungated again.

Be explicit to prevent returns

Rachel Andrea Go: You mentioned returns. I’m curious: Do you have any tips to avoid returns or prevent returns in the first place?

Lesley Hensell: Oh, another great question. So, this is where I like to use my “phone a friend,” especially for small and mid-sized sellers. You know how, when you’re really good at your business and you have conversations, you’re talking to yourself or you’re talking to your company, and if you have that same conversation with someone outside the company, they’d be like, “She’s speaking a foreign language. I don’t know what she’s talking about”? A lot of times, that happens when you create listing detail pages and even when you create product packaging. So, a whole lot of returns are because the customer didn’t really understand what they were going to get. So, if you can use someone outside of your circle — not your brand manager, not your agency — and have them look at the listing detail page, look at the product itself, and say, “Yeah, I would feel like that’s what I’m getting,” that’s really important. 

Also, on product packaging, we all know that Amazon FBA returns grading is really bad, it just is. So, when they get an item back that was returned, they’ll put it in “unsellable: when it’s sellable, and they’ll put it in “sellable” when it’s unsellable. [It’s] really important to put seals on the packaging if it’s any kind of package you can put seals. So, if it’s in a box, you can put a sticker on it that says, “If item is opened, it is not new.” You’re not saying that for the buyer, you’re saying that to the people at Amazon FBA.

Handling Amazon & Walmart account appeals

Rachel Andrea Go: What is the most complex, interesting, or funny account reinstatement story that you’ve done?

Lesley Hensell: Okay, so, the funniest is really a head-scratcher because this client never should have been reinstated, in my opinion. I had a client who was selling in the Sports and Outdoors category and he was dropshipping, but he was doing the dropshipping you’re allowed to do where you have a distributor who—they are dropshipping with your name on the item. It looks like it’s coming from you, right? So, he would get these sports and outdoors catalogs from these large sports distributors, and he was just uploading the entire catalog to Amazon instead of going through and vetting the listings. So, he was taken down because he had listed hand grenades. His supplier was also a supplier to the federal government. 

And so, when he uploaded the catalog, it was full of gun parts, it had mines and hand grenades, it had things I had never heard of, weapons I had never heard of, and knife parts — all the things. And, shockingly, Amazon reinstated him on our first appeal, which I will never understand. They had to do a lot of work scrubbing to get all of that mess that he threw in the catalog out, and then, obviously, he scrubbed the catalog a little better in the future before trying to sell federally restricted products.

Rachel Andrea Go: I saw on your website you also do Walmart appeals. So I found that really interesting. Are there any big differences between how Amazon appeals work versus Walmart appeals?

Lesley Hensell: You would think there would be — until I tell you Walmart hired people who work at Amazon to build out their enforcement division. So, if you ever go through enforcement on Amazon, whether it is appeals or ASIN level — which it, at Walmart, is the item level instead of ASIN level — you’ll find that, aside from just different terms like that, it’s really very, very similar. And even a lot of the reasons for suspension: They have the same problems with dropshipping that Amazon does. 

They are not—they have not gone through the big identity verification stuff because they do verify your identity when you onboard, but they don’t circle back to that the way Amazon sometimes does. But otherwise, so much of it is the same inauthentic complaints, condition complaints, late orders, dropship violations, it’s—oh, and related accounts — it’s really all the same thing.

Rachel Andrea Go: If you ever write to them, do you ever hear back from Walmart saying, like, “Oh, I remember you from when you were, you know, when I was at Amazon”?

Lesley Hensell: Oh my goodness, they’re—okay, so, first, I have to tell you, they’re actually much more responsive than Amazon at the seller performance level. But when I write escalations for clients, I write them in the voice of the client and the client actually submits them. But you know what is funny? I have a lot of ex-Amazon employees on staff at Riverbend and some of them do remember cases that I worked on in the past. Sometimes when we write escalations, we try to make them entertaining or amusing or we use funny subject lines, we use big drama; sometimes we use what we call “bad words,” which are things like, “You’re breaking the law.” We’re very careful about saying that, but sometimes they are. So, I have had a couple of employees who recognized sample appeals in our training process because they evaluated them when they were at Amazon. That was kind of wild that it was that memorable.

Introducing Amazon selling through The Amazon Incubator

Rachel Andrea Go: Honestly, I’m not surprised. By the way, congratulations on your new book! Can you tell me a little bit more about The Amazon Incubator?

Lesley Hensell: Thank you so much. I am super excited. I am most excited because it wasn’t even my idea to do this. I spoke at a conference, and after that, I was approached by the publisher because they had wanted to do a book about how to sell on Amazon for a long time and wanted someone in the industry who had a voice and, honestly, they had the same feeling I do. 

Okay, you know how you go out on YouTube and you search for how to sell on Amazon and you get all the “Lamborghini guys,” is what I call them, that they’re like, “Buy my course for thousands of dollars and you’re gonna have this great Lamborghini!” And then they show their Lamborghini that’s rented in front of their mansion that’s rented with a girl draped across it — she’s probably rented — and they’re trying to get you to buy into their system and it’s only 5,000, no, 12,000, with the coaching, twenty-five thousand dollars! 

And the publisher had the same feeling I did, which is, “Ew, that’s kind of gross.” And, “Is there a better, nicer way to introduce people to Amazon or to help existing brands on Amazon — you know, [a] twofer — in a book?” So, I wrote The Amazon Incubator, and it is very much about helping sellers where they are. So, the goal that it should help a seller reach is the goal the seller wants. So, it really starts from the beginning of, what is your goal? What kind of seller do you want to be on Amazon? How do you pick the products you want? How do you choose your fulfillment method? So, it’s a—it covers all the basics, all the different categories of how to sell right up to, how do you outsource? How do you pick an outsource provider? How do you hire a VA? And the goal is, instead of paying $5,000, it’s a 25-dollar investment.

And I think it can help a lot of people decide, “Is this how I want to have a side hustle? Is this how I want to expand my brand? Is it something I can do?” I still think — and the reason I call it “the Amazon Incubator” — Amazon is the most successful business incubator in the history of the world. There has been no other platform or method that has launched so many small businesses, so many millionaires, so many people making a great living — it truly still is a great opportunity. And I think that, by providing this as kind of a blueprint or a guidebook, it’ll simplify it for a lot of folks. And also, you know, I really envision—there’s a lot of entrepreneurs out here who should give this book to their kid. You know, your kid wants to make money, they want a side hustle — give them the tool, make it easy for them to understand and to get started.

Rachel Andrea Go: You mentioned what kind of seller that, you know, different people might want to be on Amazon. Can you tell us a little bit more about the different kinds of sellers that you mean? Is it, like, dropshipping, or is it, like, a lifestyle business versus all-in?

Lesley Hensell: So, a lot of it is about mindset. So, are you the side hustler that you really never want to grow your own personal brand? You just want that extra $4,000 a month net that you need to pay your bills or save for college or go on vacation or whatever it is. That’s one example.

Another is the brand impresario. So, these are the guys who are building their own private label brand, and a lot of them will then build another brand and another brand. And a lot of the decisions that flow from which of these archetypes you are — these “seller avatars,” if you will — it impacts the decisions that you make about how much you outsource and how you fulfill products. So, I think I have seven different avatars that, in chapter 2 — it’s my favorite chapter of the book — I describe each of these avatars. And then, as you work through the book, you can see how—“Well, I’m kind of a combination between the guy who wants the lifestyle thing and the brand-building thing,” and then it helps you make the decisions of how you build out that business.

Rachel Andrea Go: That sounds super interesting. I feel like everyone who even has already sold on Amazon for many years would benefit from reading that just because there are so many changes as well that people who have already established businesses on Amazon may not know about that they can learn about from the book.

Lesley Hensell: Well, and let’s face it: Amazon is changing all the time. And so a lot of people who launched on Amazon kind of did the “seat of the pants” thing, right? So, you just bought some product and list it and go! And that’s great because you get the cash flow moving, which gives you the freedom to do some more things. But is it time to back up and really think through, “What are my goals? Am I really doing this in a way I’m gonna reach those goals? What are some alternatives I should be thinking about?” So, I find that in any venture that I have — whether it’s business, personal, charitable — it’s good to have that time where you kind of back up to the basics. So, I think it could be a good tool for that, yes.

Turbulent times in eCommerce

Rachel Andrea Go: Thinking back on 2023, was there anything that happened last year that was particularly memorable or [that] you think is going to have really long-lasting impacts on eCommerce?

Lesley Hensell: Wow, such a great question. So, on the macro side, the changes with all of the aggregators — I think we are all going to be seeing some shake-out vibes from that for some time. I would caution people, though, who put too much weight on that — I think there are people out there in the media who are trying to make it, like, “Ecommerce isn’t any good,” or “Selling on Amazon isn’t any good because these large aggregators are failing.”

But that’s not necessarily true, because you have to remember: The average eCommerce seller may have a little bit of debt, but these guys were super highly leveraged. So, if you saw that an aggregator took out—got 50 million dollars in equity investment, what you need to know is, they then went and got 50 million dollars in debt, so they had an equal amount of debt and equity. Why does that matter? Interest rates have been going up for two years; their business plan did not include, “What if my interest rate quadruples?” 

So, just understand, yes, were there some fundamental problems with how they set up their business? Has eCommerce been more challenging the last two years? Yes. But there is another layer to that story that is all about, “I can’t service my debt and afford all these people.” So, I just wanted to throw that out there because I think that it is a cautionary tale but maybe for the wrong reasons sometimes. 

And then on a micro level on Amazon, they have had a tremendous number of layoffs over the last year and they are going to keep laying off people and they’re also not replacing people — which is essentially a layoff, right? That you just don’t hear about? So, the way that impacts sellers is that the enforcement is really bad and seller support is getting worse. And I know, you know, when I say that most people roll their eyes and say, “It can’t get worse!” It can. I’ve seen it before; several years ago, when everything was understaffed there, it was actually worse. It goes through these cycles: Things will turn and grow, they’ll hire some more people, they’ll figure out they can’t muddle through like this. But for now, it’s really bad. And so what that means is, if you’re an inexperienced seller or if you’re running up against an issue that you don’t understand, you’re gonna have to find an expert, a friend, an agency, a forum, a seller group, a mastermind. You’re gonna have to find someone who can walk you through some things because you’re not gonna get the help from Amazon. You’re gonna have to find the answers yourself and then persuade Amazon to help you make changes.

Play it safe and outsource your headaches

Rachel Andrea Go: What is your advice for merchants coming into 2024?

Lesley Hensell: Oh goodness, so…to me, this is a year to be a little bit conservative. And that is not an answer anyone ever wants to hear, but there’s some—you know, inflation is still happening. There are some shipping issues right now, which makes all the costs go up.

And there’s, you know, political drama because it’s an election year. So, I don’t think it’s necessarily a year to be super crazy aggressive if you’ve already got an established business. Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t invest in new things and try new things, but it’s all got to be based on data and testing. It can’t just be like 15 years ago when you’d just throw products up there and they sell; everything needs to be based on data and testing. So, you want to launch a new product? Get 5,000 units instead of the 15 [thousand] you were gonna order. Get them on Amazon. Test. Try different A/B tests on everything — on your ads, on your pages, on everything — and really improve before you go all in. And that’s my really boring, unsatisfying advice.

Rachel Andrea Go: What are some of the most beneficial things to give to a VA for them to do?

Lesley Hensell: So, anything that you can outsource is great to outsource. And the most important things to outsource are the things that make you mad or unhappy. So, give you an example: Everyone knows that doing customer service messaging can make you mad and unhappy. I know that’s a very basic thing, but when you have people lie to your face about your products, complain about the condition they arrived [in], or that they didn’t arrive when you have the tracking in the picture, that will make you very mad and very unhappy. And as an entrepreneur, you really need to be focused on the things that will make you money, and being mad about that customer isn’t going to make you money. So, the number one thing to outsource are things like that that disrupt your flow, disrupt your emotions, and create problems for you.

But then, after that, you can write an SOP for a VA on almost anything — including that returns report I mentioned earlier. They can calculate your return rate for your products. They can look and tell you which ones are the most problematic that you should look at, serve up that data to you, and then you do the decision-making. So, I’m a huge fan of, “Reimbursements have to be outsourced to a VA or an agency.” They have to; they’re complex, time-consuming, and frustrating. Customer service messaging is a big one. You can use them for sourcing if you are looking through catalogs because you source wholesale, they’re great for that as well. So, those would be my top three.