When Incept started building its direct-to-consumer offering in early 2020, there was no way of predicting how essential that business stream would be just a few short months later. With the pandemic causing gyms (their biggest customers and an essential revenue stream) to shut their doors indefinitely, their B2C business became all the more essential — and in-demand.
Health and fitness equipment revenue more than doubled to a value of $2.3 billion between March and October 2020, sales of treadmills grew 135% and stationary bike sales nearly tripled. To say that the home fitness industry experienced tremendous windfall as a result of the pandemic would be an understatement.
But with an unprecedented uptick in sales also came depleted inventory and the need for top-tier virtual customer support across all communications channels — from their website to social media DMs. For a lean team of 13 employees, Incept needed a way to scale their customer service without incurring additional labor costs.
They needed conversational AI built for the new retail reality.
We sat down with Richard Mézières, Incept’s Social Media Manager, to talk about their virtual assistant, aptly named Helpy, and how they built a sophisticated virtual customer support experience by blending the power of automation with their team’s expertise in the fitness space.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
1. Take me back to the start of the pandemic - as a merchant who specializes in sports and workout equipment, how did COVID-19 impact your business?
Looking back, COVID-19 had two key repercussions on our business. The first was the massive amount of interest from consumers in purchasing training equipment for their homes — things like indoor cycling bikes, rowers, and other machines you would typically find in a gym. With gyms closing, we saw a tremendous uptick in consumer interest and sales during the first couple months of the pandemic, which makes perfect sense considering people want to stay fit, even if their typical training environment changes!
With gyms closing, we saw a tremendous uptick in consumer interest and sales during the first couple months of the pandemic.
The second way COVID-19 impacted our business was our supply chain. We are the only certified distributor for Concept2 and Wattbike, which are known for producing top-of-the-line training equipment. Like most producers, the ability to manufacture its products was slowed down significantly, which resulted in Incept having order fulfillment delays. Once June rolled around and we had sold through our existing inventory, order fulfillment times extended from a few weeks to anywhere between two and six months for certain products.
And like many merchants, these weren’t your typical order delays. There was ambiguity throughout the entire supply chain which made it quite a unique challenge that didn’t just affect us, but our suppliers and manufacturers as well.
The most challenging part was that we didn’t necessarily have visibility ourselves when we would receive more inventory and when shoppers’ orders would be fulfilled, which I think was frustrating for both parties. The increased demand for our products, paired with the lack of inventory from manufacturers globally, was certainly a unique challenge that I don’t think we faced up until that point.
2. I can only imagine how that lack of intel must have affected your frontline support teams.
Yeah! At the start of the pandemic when we had lots of inventory, everything was going amazing; we were selling more than ever direct-to-consumer. It’s once we sold through that initial inventory that the strain became apparent on our support teams. As soon as we had information on restocks, we notified customers right away to assure that they were kept in the loop and had opportunities to reserve or pre-purchase their equipment in anticipation of those restocks.
Once we got our virtual assistant set up, though, we started responding to FAQs with detailed automated responses rather than responding to all queries via live chat. That cut down our response times by a significant margin and saved our human support team countless hours. Just from October to December, we treated over 2,300 conversations with Heyday, 88% of which were automatically resolved by our virtual assistant, Helpy.
3. Have you noticed any difference in your customers’ shopping behavior and habits since the pandemic?
For sure. It’s no secret that premium training equipment like rowers and bikes have a premium price. Pre-pandemic, we saw shoppers place a lot more emphasis on research; weighing the cost and pros of having the machine at home versus having a gym subscription. Customers would also inquire more about financing options and see if they could pay for the item in monthly installments. There was a lot more reflection on the part of our customers before making a purchase.
But now, with gyms effectively being closed, I noticed that customers are less hesitant. They see the value of having great workout equipment at home and essentially buy as soon as there’s inventory available. There’s seemingly no doubt or reticence that our sales associates need to address before closing a sale. I believe this ultimately stems from shoppers seeing our machines as a great way to take care of their physical and mental wellness in this difficult time, and fill the void left by gym closures.
4. In September 2020, Incept launched Helpy, your virtual assistant - talk to me about why the concept of a virtual assistant was interesting to you?
One of Incepts core values is to be aligned with our customers and build personalized relationships with them. We want to address their needs whenever they need it, on whichever channel they prefer — whether that’s Facebook, Instagram, or via our website’s chat widget.
But we’re a pretty lean team. We’re around 13 employees total, with myself owning our end-to-end digital operations, including our website, social media, and community management. I alone can’t possibly respond to each customer inquiry in a timely manner, and that’s during business hours. What about if a customer tries to contact us outside of business hours? We needed a solution to help us maintain an open line of instant communication with our customers around the clock.
Helpy helps us focus our energy on the shoppers who really need human assistance while assuring that shoppers with more common questions are served promptly.
That’s where the idea of Helpy, our virtual assistant, came from. It answers most incoming queries instantly, which helps us assure that each customer is served. For those more infrequent, complex queries, our support team can also answer quickly since they don’t have a massive backlog to work through. Helpy helps us focus our energy on the shoppers who really need human assistance while assuring that shoppers with more common questions are served promptly.
5. Other than automation and increased customer satisfaction, what’s a surprising benefit you and your team are getting from Heyday that may not be represented in the hard metrics?
When it comes to managing digital conversations with shoppers online, it’s been tremendously helpful for my workload. Like I mentioned before, I manage Incept’s website and social media channels and everything that falls under those categories — including supporting the customers that chat with us on those platforms.
When we first started using Heyday, I would have a backlog of around 15 chat requests that were initiated over the weekend. At first I thought that wasn’t too much, but after diving into Heyday’s analytics, I realized that these were only the conversations that weren’t automated. In reality, we were resolving hundreds of conversations without me needing to be involved!
For someone who wears many hats, that’s been a huge benefit. I have confidence that we’re offering great customer service, while freeing up time for myself to proactively plan for the future and build new experiences to surprise and delight our customers.
6. Did chat help you learn more about your customers?
Absolutely! When we sat down with the Heyday team to build our conversational flows, we had an expectation for how and why customers would use chat. But as more shoppers used chat, we noticed that they would use it in unexpected ways — by asking questions we didn’t expect, for instance.
Everyone is different, and as such, they’ll use chat differently. What’s nice is that the AI that powers our virtual assistant is smart enough to understand nuance and resolve queries fast. And the more it’s exposed to queries it doesn’t yet understand, the more it will learn, adapt, and get even more powerful in the future.
Chat helped us validate certain assumptions we had about our customers and pinpoint how we can make our customer experience better. That direct customer feedback is invaluable.
7. Fitness equipment is such a technical product with a lot of research involved. How has your virtual assistant helped you serve online shoppers and give them the confidence to buy?
Incept specializes in premium training equipment and machines, and with that comes a lot of in-house product knowledge that we pass on to our customers. We work to assure they buy the equipment that’s right for their needs and that will fit into both their home and lifestyle.
Shoppers turn to chat to learn how to assemble their machines, how to use them, and so much more. We’re using that information to build out help center documentation and blogs to support those informational queries and share our knowledge with customers at scale.
Heyday is helping us support our customers the way they want to be supported. If they prefer taking care of things on their own, we equip them with the information to get the job done, but if they need one-to-one help, we can do that, too.
For those queries where a how-to article just isn't enough, customers can chat with our product experts via live chat. In a nutshell, I think Heyday is helping us support our customers the way they want to be supported. If they prefer taking care of things on their own, we equip them with the information to get the job done, but if they need one-to-one help, we can do that, too.
8. Looking forward, what are Incept’s plans for 2021 and beyond?
Moving forward, I’d say our immediate focus is building out our self-serve content, editorial, and digital strategy for our social media channels. Especially since the pandemic hit, people have been turning to social media for entertainment, information, and pretty much anything in between. We really want to invest in our content and assure that it’s amplifying Incept as the de-facto certified reseller of Concept2 & Wattbike premium training equipment, capable of fulfilling orders for consumers and businesses alike.
Just in the past year, we went from having a website that simply wasn’t ready for B2C, to being transactional online, getting over one million website visits, and surpassing B2B sales by a wide margin. Right now, we’re laser focused on building our B2C business and selling directly to customers via our digital channels. There’s a huge growth opportunity in that space.