Reputation is important for any business, especially when selling through an online platform only. Since customers can’t meet you in person, they rely heavily on online reviews to make sure the seller is legitimate and has good quality merchandise. In this episode, Emily sits down with the owner of Top 10 Collectibles, Tony LoMenzo, to dig into how you can create connections with your customers virtually and provide a personal touch to show you care.
On the Yelp Blog: Learn four effective strategies for adding a personal touch to your business that can help you build customer loyalty and stand out from larger companies.
EMILY: I’m Emily Washcovick, Yelp’s Small Business Expert. Typically I tell a story featuring conversations with a business owner, as well as someone who wrote them a Yelp review. But this week I’m sitting down with my partner and founder of Top 10 collectibles Tony LoMenzo. I’ve been with Tony for a little over 6 years and I’ve seen his evolution from a brick and mortar business to full solopreneurship, predominantly online. We talk about reviews a lot, and honestly I’m not sure why it’s taken me this long to invite Tony on the show. He sells products on multiple online platforms that have reviews, with one of the biggest being eBay. In this chat we talk about how he puts his personal touch on things to surprise and delight customers and subtly encourage them to share positive feedback. We’ll also talk about troubleshooting customer concerns, and how to reflect yourself online in a way that builds and creates trust with consumers. Let’s give our conversation a listen.
EMILY: Very excited for today’s episode. I have with me my partner, Tony LoMenzo. He’s going to tell us a little bit about a brick and mortar business he used to work in back in the day, as well as his evolution to a fully online business and how he handles his online reputation across different selling platforms.
Tony, thanks for joining me today. Can you tell everyone a little bit about your journey in entrepreneurship?
TONY: Thanks so much for having me. I’m Tony, founder of Top 10 collectibles. And yes, I did have a very extensive background in brick and mortar. I helped start a retail shoe store called Trusted Kicks. I ended up doing my own thing eventually and transferred into a fully online business, which has a wide array of things that I’m hoping to talk about.
EMILY: Can you describe for everyone what Top 10 collectibles is? You really sell an array of things and I want people to get a sense of the type of items you sell and also the different ways that you’re connecting with your customers. Cuz we’ll dig into that.
TONY: So absolutely, with Top 10 collectibles, the products can range from so many different things. We started with shoes. We transferred into sports memorabilia. That market itself is very prestigious and it has so many different topics. Sports cards, autographs, game worn items, A to Z list items. It’s crazy! And then I’ve even transferred more into the lower end products, like vintage CDs, DVDs, books, historical things. People can connect by purchasing a $2 product or a $2,000 product.
EMILY: And when you went out on your own and founded Top 10 collectibles, you were really starting on a platform that had sellers with years and years of experience. eBay kind of ended up being one of the big platforms that you focused on. Talk to me a little bit about what that was like, to try to grow an online presence in a landscape where people had been on there for maybe 10 or 15 years selling before you started.
TONY: Yeah, it’s crazy to see how hard it is to grow at first and then how you can grow. Like you said, a lot of people on online platforms like eBay, they’ll have upwards of 10,000, 20,000 reviews accumulated. Obviously with a lot of repetition and good business. But even starting on there by myself, I remember only being able to post maybe 25 to 30 things for a whole month. So they really even limit you aside from the reviews of even being able to post and create reviews being able with limited posting.
EMILY: Yeah, and what I wanna talk about a little bit is how you built up that reputation on eBay over time. And you know, a big thing on Yelp is not asking for reviews, and you follow that same mindset on all the different platforms you’re on. But we’re gonna dig in a little bit to the things you do to subtly ask for a review without actually asking. Before we dig into that, can you talk a little bit to me about those items that you considered when you started your online business and what can set you apart as an online seller? What are some of the things you do that you know contribute to you standing out when someone buys an item of yours.
TONY: Like you said, in my own way, I feel like entrepreneurs, and small business owners of any kind, they create by themselves eventually their own personal touch. So one thing that I do, and it does take time—I do handwritten thank you notes with every single order and with my entrepreneurship, I’ve allowed myself to sell products that are worth two or $3 upwards into the thousands of dollars.
But either way, each order is personalized with a handwritten note. And different arrays of small messages just to make sure people truly appreciate their support of a small business owner. And that’s something that I’ve just created myself, my own personal touch, and being able to sell wide arrays of products, it allows anybody who purchases from me that chance to connect with me without asking for a review directly. But a thank you note can go a long way with the personal touch.
EMILY: Yeah, and something I think that really helped you grow your reputation so quickly that I didn’t even realize was the fact that you diversify products. So something I remember you explaining to me once was, if you want people to trust you when they’re looking at a thousand dollar card, for example, you have to have some feedback. And so in order for you to get in the hundreds and now thousands of reviews, you sell all types of items. And what I love is like you go to the post office at least once, maybe twice every day. So what does it matter to you if some of the items you’re only making a dollar or $2 on cuz you’re going anyway. But what I never thought of was, you put that thank you in each of those items, and the person who gets the $2 DVD is like way wowed above and beyond because you took that time and so they might be writing tons of reviews even though they only spent $2 in your store.
TONY: Absolutely. And with any type of price point that I’m trying to offer, the same concepts apply too. I just want to make people happy with their purchase. In this process of becoming a full-time entrepreneur by myself, even shipping rates have all inflated a decent amount where, media mail shipping used to be one price, and now it’s actually more than doubled since maybe a two to three year span.
And there have been times, many times in the past calendar year where people are paying more for their shipping than the actual product. And that’s just something that I obviously realize as the seller. They realize as the buyer. But whatever they spend or whatever price point I’m offering, I want that personal touch to connect with them without asking them for any type of review or going over the top.
EMILY: And something else you do is like if it’s larger ticket items, sometimes you’ll throw in little free things to surprise them that are of no value to you. Talk about that.
TONY: That’s something that I’ve really come to appreciate is if people are gonna trust me on that higher level, or I said in the sports memorabilia world, that prestigious level, I always try to think of little things that I can add in where it’s not maybe as cool or valuable to me, but I know that even thinking of adding anything extra in today’s world, the buyer’s highly likely to at least comment on it, and there’s obviously not usually gonna be a bad comment.
They’re gonna say, wow, this person not only wrote the thank you note, they added in extra stuff that they probably had on their store and they were selling, but they thought it’d be a better idea and more kind to add something extra without even asking for it.
EMILY: And I think for you, you’re always looking at the transaction as more than just that one sale. Like, sure they just bought a card or a DVD or a CD, but you’re hoping that they click through to your eBay store and buy something else. Or think of you next Christmas when they wanna get something for their parents that they couldn’t find at a store. Talk about how you can get in that mindset of looking beyond just the single transaction and not getting so bogged down by thinking, Ugh, they’re only spending $2 and I have to spend all this extra time.
TONY: Yes, seriously, Emily, it resonates so much with me because within the last maybe seven to eight months, the technology updates tell you that the person’s actually a repeat buyer on any order. It won’t tell you how many orders they’ve placed, but it’ll just say in either green or red as a repeat buyer.
That was honestly to me a huge change on my platform because I’m able to even personalize things more as well. “Thanks for shopping with us again.” Or “thanks for your continued support.” That update itself made me want to connect with customers so much more because I can tell that the more I do that, the more repeat buyers I’m getting.
And it’s funny to see that I can say some months I have just as many repeat buyers as new time customers, and that’s a goal that I didn’t think I ever would have.
EMILY: That’s really cool that you can track that. And I think it kind of plays into this whole topic we wanted to cover about responsiveness. You really believe that being responsive is something that the customer appreciates and makes them probably share a review or come back and work with you again. Tell me about how you stay on top of that. Like how do you make sure you’re responding in a timely manner, but also you know, living a life and realizing sometimes these people are asking questions about a $2 product. Like how do you balance.
TONY: Yeah, I would say sometimes I can even boil it down to some of my traits, as in I’ve always considered myself a very punctual person. Just being on time to anything I’m doing, and that’s kind of just the same as being punctual with responses. I think the more you put into the person, whether they have an interest in something or they’ve already purchased it and they have a follow up question, it shows that you care.
And I think a lot of small business owners, when they are 80 to 90% or a hundred percent online, they sometimes like that autonomy of not having to interact with the customer as much because online is obviously meant for not face-to-face interaction. So I like to do a little bit of the opposite of that sometimes, that I do stay on top of responding to people and showing them that regardless of the price point, they get a service that’s unique and it can be personalized to try to help them.
EMILY: Yeah. And another thing you do is you focus on packing and packaging, right? Like, you and I have been together for a long time, so I’ve seen the evolution of shipping and how you pack things up. With shoes, it was so much easier, right? You just throw it in a big box, slap the label on and send it out. But with memorabilia or collectibles, these people expect the stuff to be packed in a way that it’s gonna make it. But also sometimes like you and I joke, the person buying the $2 card is the one that wants like a three inch bubble wrap around the whole thing. How do you focus on packaging and make sure it’s prioritized, but also kind of delicately balanced between you spending a lot of money and what you’re getting back from the customer.
TONY: Great questions because I’ve come into markets that I didn’t realize. Even with absolutely perfect flawless shipping, sometimes I cannot control how the products ship around the country, and honestly, absolutely around the world as well. So I’ve had a lot of trial and errors of buying different bubble mailers, different size boxes for different size products.
Sometimes I’ll feel I could do a great job shipping the item, but you know, things can get damaged without my power. I would say since I’ve dabbled into the smaller or the lower price products, I try to stay very consistent with my packing. We’ve gotten a very streamlined bubble mailer. It’s able to package a DVD, a CD, and a lot of different things all in the same size, being able to wrap it up. But people do look for ways to complain, as we all know. And sometimes the packaging seems to be more important than the product. And that’s something that I didn’t realize, but that’s why I try to do as much on my end to make sure the buyer’s happy. And with everything going up, they do pay a lot for shipping, so it has become very important to try to keep it assembly line and consistent.
EMILY: Yeah, and something that you and I talk about is like, also adjusting your own emotions and expectations when the customer’s expectations aren’t met, but it’s out of your control, I mean, we always talk about the reviews when you get a negative one, like, you know, be honest. It bums you out. Sometimes when you tell me, I’m like, oh man, is this gonna be the whole night that we’re in a bad mood about the review? But like you’ve gotten better over time. So talk to me about what that feels like when you get a review and it feels like their expectations weren’t even fair to begin with.
And also how you’ve moved away from that and you’ve gotten really good at just like letting some of them go.
TONY: Thank you. I think it’s a growth that I think a lot of business owners have to have and even in such different markets. ‘Cause my first thoughts are reviews equal the food industry and the hospitality industry. But I’ve come to learn that the reviews matter. Absolutely. The negative reviews always create a reaction right away from an owner or any type of employee. But it can be best to not instantly react and respond right away. I’ve learned that if I’m selling a product that’s $2.50, it could somehow be more likely to get a negative review than a product that is $400.
I’ve had so many more experiences of people being unhappy with a cheaper product as opposed to a more expensive one. And even that interesting fact has made me evolve myself of not being so harsh on the review because, I can’t control how someone reacts to something that isn’t as you would expect a negative review to come from. So reviews, they come and go. And when you’re selling more, I’m just hoping for reviews overall. And if you stick to your plan, you’re probably gonna get more, good ones than bad ones.
EMILY: Yeah. And you and I talk all the time, like sometimes a negative review builds trust and It’s still frustrating when you get it, but you do a really good job of responding to people.
Let’s talk a little bit about how you actually problem solve and do customer service when there’s a problem, because that’s a big part of it, right? Like it’s not just about how you respond, but it’s about how you react when they share negative feedback. You are pretty firm though, like you don’t really give refunds, especially on smaller price items. So how do you handle that when they’re upset about that and they leave a negative review. What do you do? What’s your action plan?
TONY: Yeah, of course. So I’ve always tried to study that. The stuff I’m selling, I always want to have the best price online. Because I think online, in the best way possible, is the most competitive thing that I don’t worry about, but I study. So I always know that whatever I’m selling, I want to have the most fair, fairly priced product, which is the most competitive price.
I think that a lot of negative reviews are people wanting refunds tend to be situations where they say the product is only good. I say the product is like new, but at the end of the day, the product is not something where it would warrant a refund or make me buy more shipping labels and things like that.
I try to offer them as many solutions as possible. As in, if they want to mail it back to me, I’ll get ’em something new. I’ll offer ’em to mail ’em something on us as you can keep it for this time only. But sometimes you can just tell the outliers in reviews or people just expecting way too much for this situation, and I always try to keep my mind as optimistic and open as possible, but I think when you give them options and it still doesn’t work, sometimes it can show that maybe they’re asking a little bit too much and you don’t have to beat yourself up about it or bring yourself down like I normally would have in the past.
EMILY: And other consumers can spot those out too, right? Like they come to your page and they see over 2000 reviews – when they see a negative one it’s almost like an outlier on its own. Have you ever experienced people mentioning that they chose you because of great reviews? Like we saw your reviews and so we bought stuff with you.
TONY: Yeah, and it’s actually, as the technology is advanced on eBay, on Yelp, on all these places, people are able to see the reviews people leave for a specific product. So they’re not gonna be able to see the price that the person pays, but they can see, you know, if it’s a pair of pants or a CD or a signed photo, they can see all of that and they can see what review the person left.
I think as many consumers are online, as much as we are. Outliers are easy to see. Sometimes they leave very extensive reviews over something that you wouldn’t even expect your review on. Or sometimes they say things like, this person doesn’t care about their customers; do not buy from them. Such bold statements over something that maybe someone wouldn’t even leave a review on. So some of us have better feelers on seeing outliers for negative reviews. But either way, it is something that we can’t always control and a negative review’s gonna come. And sometimes it makes your business look much more authentic than just only positive reviews as you would hope for.
EMILY: You also look at the positive reviews as an opportunity to stay in touch with a customer, right? Like you reply to those too, even though you get so many. How do you think about replying to positive reviews and how do you prioritize it or find the time for it?
TONY: I always love to look at just unique one or two statements that people will leave me that I’ve never heard before. That’s what I love. I love hearing something new in obviously something good, instead of something bad. I love hearing new things and reviews that I haven’t heard before where I can respond to and even say, wow, nobody said this about us before. Thank you so much. I would love to keep in touch and if you ever need help with anything, we’re always here. And you know, you hear a lot of the same stuff. Great product, fast shipping, great packaging. Those are very common, but at the end of the day, you’ll take those every time. I’ll always take anything positive, but I love hearing something new and it definitely makes me more responsive to those. And I try to connect with them after I hear that.
EMILY: Mm-hmm. I wanna circle back a little bit to the volume thing because I think a lot of business owners, like let’s say a dentist, right, or a moving company, they get started in 2022 or 2023 and they’re competing against other companies that have like 150 reviews, but they’re in an industry where they’re probably only gonna get a few reviews here and there.
How do you think about volume? Like how do you keep it realistic where, yeah, you wanna get reviews, but you know you’re not gonna get reviews from everyone who buys a product. How did you make yourself patient while your reputation was built? Because you weren’t asking, but like you were itching for more reviews. How do you advise those business owners to shift their mindsets so they’re not so obsessed with getting more reviews, they’re just creating great experiences.
TONY: Yeah, that’s a great question for me because reviews are something that people essentially work very hard for. And they wanna do their best on their end to give themselves the best chance for a positive review or just a review in general. They want the interaction and they want it, you know, to go into the books or however you would say it.
Like you said, with moving companies, or even maybe expensive restaurants, the reviews aren’t as likely to come right away. And especially with something that’s more expensive, the review might be more important because you know, you’re not getting them as often and it’s gonna have so much more of an impact.
So with myself in the high volume online industry, I thought to myself, I’m not gonna get a review every time, but if I can do my part, I would love to get a review every one out of three sales or one out of four sales. I thought that was a realistic expectation and I think, and if a lot of online sellers heard me say that, I think they might be able to relate to that and make it a realistic one.
So if I can get a review of any sort, hopefully a positive one, if I can get a review of any sort out of 25% to maybe 35% of my sales. I’m totally okay with that, and I’ll take that all day. Some days I’ll get less and some days more, but that’s a good ratio I think that I like to stick to.
EMILY: That is a really good ratio. I’ve never asked you about that before. Okay, I wanna talk about some other business tips that you can help my listeners with, just because of the nature of your business. So the first one is about building this customer base and creating yourself as an expert or like a go-to person in the industry. And you do that by being present on sites like eBay and things, but you also are very active in online groups. Like Facebook is a huge area where you have kind of built up a reputation. Talk to me about how you decide what places you wanna gravitate towards online, and then how you show up so that people see you as trustworthy and someone they might want to do business with.
TONY: Yeah, I bet the common person could definitely say that Facebook has fallen off a little bit or has lost popularity in the social media sector. But it really has a lot, a lot of its own unique things that people maybe haven’t learned about or have, you know, because they maybe have forgotten about Facebook. But I would say Facebook’s still very relevant, especially of all ages. Maybe the kids in high school aren’t using it as much, but for adults, people who are professionals, small business owners, I think it’s very, very relevant.
Still Facebook marketplace, huge, huge platform. People sell items there and ship them out. I actually don’t do that, but I do do a lot of purchasing from Facebook marketplace. Like you said, Emily, there’s a lot of private Facebook groups for different collectibles, sign memorabilia groups, vintage CD groups, things that you have to request to get into. And then it’s kind of like you’re finding a free network of collectors that is built up for you without having to work for it. So it’s kind of popping your head into different groups and different niches and connecting with people with your own work, but the big community’s already built and you just kind of have to interact with what’s gonna work for you.
EMILY: And you know, there’s something about setting expectations there too. I mean, I’ve seen it before where you post something in there and people will start to maybe be ripping on price. Or like different things and you jump in and like you’re very responsive and friendly, but you also set a clear expectation from the start of, like, what it’s gonna be like doing business with you.
TONY: Absolutely. With Facebook, I try to keep my mind very open because sometimes I’ll post 20 things for sale. I won’t get one reaction. I’ll probably put in over an hour’s work prepping photos, descriptions, little things to hopefully make something sell. But maybe people will just miss it. Maybe I posted at the wrong time in the day. Maybe I posted something that didn’t catch the eyes of the people in the group that I thought it would. But there can be other times where I do the complete opposite and I sell everything that I post. So I think Facebook is unique because you never know who’s gonna bite on something and you never know how people are going to react.
So sometimes I’ll price something way too high in people’s eyes, but in other people’s eyes they’ll say, oh, great price, unique product. You know, even like, thanks for posting. We don’t see these often. So I’m always open to Facebook and I love the different energy that it brings out of people, and it’s still a very useful platform for me in so many different ways.
EMILY: Okay, shipping quick tips. First, I think you should just give a little bit of advice on how you have to actually pay attention to what you’re spending on shipping supplies. And then let’s give ’em some of our hacks, like how you got your shipping costs down.
TONY: So, lots of things going on with shipping. Like you said, a lot of different ways to ship, a lot of different ways to do good and bad, so everybody’s probably gonna relate to this. Tape is always going to be very common and probably one of your biggest things that you always need to have and watch your costs on and then a great, I would say any type of cardboard. Lots of online sellers are gonna be using cardboard in one way or another. They’re gonna be using cardboard boxes, cardboard as padding. So you have to keep in mind that the products that you can’t really change that you’re using, you’re gonna have to find them the cheapest possible price in bulk and never run out of them because, There are times in the last year or so where we’ll somehow run out of tape, our shipping boxes for maybe three or four days, completely unplanned.
And that can just mess up our whole streamline of how we want to keep the business going efficiently and get those positive reviews that we’re doing our part on. Another thing would be don’t wait to ship stuff out until the last moment. If you’re able to. Ship something out as it sells and as your payment is received, do it in that moment while you’re thinking of it, because it’s the things that you can’t plan for that will back you up and really set you back.
And an example of you not doing your part and where the chance of getting a negative review is much more likely. So the best thing people want to see on your reviews is fast shipping, and I would say followed up by good packaging and good communication. But I think fast shipping to me is music to my ears, and there’s nothing more I would want to hear as a buyer, as somebody who cares about shipping the something you’ve paid for out immediately.
EMILY: Mm-hmm. We switched over to a laser printer like two years ago. Tell them about the difference in ink and paper. I mean, like everyone who does shipping needs a laser printer.
TONY: Yeah. The thermal printers are essential. I can say confidently that Emily suggested it so many more times to me, and I waited easily too long to use that ink and paper itself for printers are so expensive where a thermal printer, you might feel a couple hundred dollars when you pay for it, but there’s just so much saving on ink, saving on paper, how fast it is. It’s a sticky label. Thermal printers really change the aspect of any business because you’re not running out of the essential products every month, or if you are really selling a lot, you’re not running outta the essential products every couple weeks. You’re really never running out of them at all. And I think a thermal printer is, it’s just kind of something you would call state-of-the art. It really takes your business to a next step because. The process is so much faster and it’s so much more efficient on your costs.
EMILY: And then I think the last tip is like literally turn everything into supplies.We joke, but there’s not a single box that we bring home from a store, get in the mail from something we ordered or anything that doesn’t get reused.
And that’s the same with like, I mean, I’ll get a tiny little box in the mail with a book I ordered and there’s two squares of bubble in there. But I’m always gonna set that aside for you. And you use everything like talk about, yeah, you find the best mailers and whatever to do things at scale, but like you turn anything into a shipping supply.
TONY: Yeah, it’s so helpful. We’ve made ourselves look at what you really spend your money on, because I’ve learned by myself that the most useful boxes online are the most expensive. So the smallest boxes online that you think would be a quarter or like over a dollar each, however many you buy, you could buy 300 of them, and they’re still gonna be about a dollar each.
So, the smallest supplies and the most unique supplies are always the most expensive. So saving our own cardboard that we buy for our own home stuff or office stuff, anything extra we always keep and use because it’s truly saving dollars on dollars, on dollars, time and time again, and the most essential supplies are never really gonna get cheaper, and they do sell out even, which makes it even more frustrating when sometimes you throw ’em away.
You know if when you don’t think about it, it really does add up, even if it is just a couple dollars here and there.
EMILY: This has been awesome. So I think in summary, there’s a couple of main takeaways here and then you tell me if we’re missing anything. The first is you need to create experiences that wow your customers and are worth reviewing. So for you it’s of course having a great product, but it’s good communication, great packing and shipping. It’s also responsiveness and that extra touch of doing a thank you card and really showing that you care. Then it’s also about replying to reviews, both the critical ones and trying to provide solutions, but being realistic and not bending over backwards in a way that’s taking your energy away from other customers, but also making sure you’re replying to the positives because those are customers who are gonna likely spend with you again, as you’ve found. And then lastly, it’s about being present, responsive and reflective of who you are as a business anywhere you show up online. So whether you’re building community in groups or responding or trying to troubleshoot, you have to kind of have this same consultative I care about your approach.
TONY: Of course, a great takeaway from our interview, Emily, a good tongue twister, is to do as much as you can on your end to show that you care. Don’t beat yourself up over moments that it’s something you really cannot control. But when you get your payment received, when somebody completes their order, show that you care if you can ship fast. Ship fast. If you can do the small personal touch for people, do that. I don’t expect people listening to this to go and write a thousand thank you notes. But maybe try out just small things in your own world and your own network that you can see, or you can see a potential customer smiling from and making them happy.
One of our good friends is in the industry of making people happy with pizza. I make people happy with collectibles ranging from $2 to two to $2,000. I think there’s a million different ways to make people happy, and if you do your part or show them that you care as much as possible without beating yourself up, it’ll go so far. And it’ll make it much easier in the long run for yourself.
EMILY: And a lot of our listeners have employees and staff who need to also be an extension of this, right? Like your team needs to understand that one of your goals is making customers feel appreciated and making them smile and really just doing that above and beyond, that tiny little thing to make them show or know that you care as a business.
TONY: Yeah, it’s really—find what helps you out in your day-to-day, because if nothing’s really gonna get easier, but you can always work smarter and you can figure out the touches that make you unique in your own way and can build something so much bigger than you would think just with the small personal touch.