With the world finally emerging from the restrictions put in place by a global pandemic, people are eager to get outside and get physical. And after a challenging couple of years, the team at Spartan Race—the world’s largest obstacle course and endurance brand—is eager to get its loyal fans back outdoors and competing in races.
Founded in 2010 by former Wall Street trader Joe De Sena, Spartan Race is one of the globe’s fastest-growing sports, with more than 1.2 million athletes competing in hundreds of races in 40 countries.
As part of Zendesk’s CX Moment virtual event series, we spoke with Spartan Race’s Director of Global Engagement, Aja Varney, who shares how she and her team learned some lessons from the pandemic—and what’s next for the brand.
Shifting gears during the pandemic
Spartan Race, like many companies during the COVID-19 crisis, had to reinvent the way it was doing business. When the pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, the team at Spartan Race was forced to suspend the competitions, which brought the business to a standstill.
“It was a huge shift for us,” Varney admits. “We’re used to putting on a big event on a weekend, having thousands of people get muddy, get together, help each other out, in person. And we couldn’t do that all of a sudden.”
To keep customers engaged with the brand, Spartan Race focused on reinforcing the emotional connection it has with customers—but it wasn’t easy.
“It forced a lot of hard conversations and difficult shifts in mindset. But at the same time, I think it was really huge for us because it made us really focus on what we needed—and what our customer needed.”Aja Varney, Director of Global Engagement at Spartan Race
After a series of brainstorms, Varney and her team created a virtual world, staging online events for their customers. With virtual events, customers could access training plans and connect with the obstacle course community remotely.
“You can’t go to the gym, what do you have?” asks Varney. “How can you still train so that when we can come back to events you’re ready to rumble?”
The lockdowns also spurred the creation of Spartan Fit, an app available in the U.S. for Android and iOS smartphones.
“It had been on the roadmap for years,” says Varney of the training app. “I won’t say the first iteration was perfect, but we got it out the door. Now, we’ve spent some time refining it and making it a really worthy product.”
Changing modes of communication
Developing the Spartan Fit app led to other changes in the way Varney and her team approached their use of technology. During this time, they decided to transition from live chat to messaging so they could better serve Spartan Race’s customers.
“We simply didn’t have the staff that could sit on a live chat on those designated hours, waiting for chats to come in,” Varney explains. “And we just didn’t have enough people to support the volume that would come in. So, we had to look for other options.”
Spartan Race’s customers loved the interaction of a live channel, so Varney and her team found a way to preserve that kind of personal interaction. Staffing a live chat with a lean budget proved challenging, so they discovered messaging was a great way to bridge that gap.
“The difference with messaging was that because it’s asynchronous—always on wherever people are—it’s going to meet the customer wherever they are… It allowed us to staff as much as we could,” Varney says. “The biggest change was the ability to have more flexible staffing.”
Building a better bot
Chatbots have also freed up Spartan Race’s live agents to help more customers.
“We do have…three or four repetitive questions that are easy for us to self-service through a bot for a customer,” Varney explains. “But also making sure that we give them the option to go to that human—if that is what people prefer.”
Varney also used her own not-so-great experiences with other brands’ chatbots to improve Spartan Race’s CX.
“You have a tier-one agent, let’s say, that’s not empowered to help you in any way,” Varney explains. “They’re following a script, and they have two answers for you—and then you get redirected to email anyway. This drives me nuts!”
“Email is how we’ve always done it, and I think it’s a great standby and good for a lot of issues. But live chat is the up-and-comer.”Aja Varney
But throughout the pandemic, Varney found communications over Spartan Race’s chat held valuable insights that helped the team improve the overall customer experience.
“People love to interact in person, and the more interactions you have with your customer, you get so much—I’ll call it accidental feedback,” says Varney. “They’re telling you about your product, they’re telling you where they need help, they’re telling you where they need more information.”
And with properly trained agents, customers can get a lot out of a live chat interaction.
“Email is how we’ve always done it, and I think it’s a great standby and good for a lot of issues,” says Varney. “But live chat is the up-and-comer.”
Returning to in-person events
All of Spartan Race’s customers across the globe were impacted by the pandemic to varying degrees—some customers didn’t have access to a gym for a month, while others were in lockdown for nearly a year. Now, with restrictions easing, Spartan Race is once again starting to offer live events.
“It’s been a crazy two years, and no one’s feeling as confident in their physical fitness,” says Varney. “What we’ve found is that with our customers, we need to take it back to basics a little bit.”
That means offering flexibility, whether it’s easing customers into a training program or simply having them reconnect with the community.
“Not everyone’s feeling safe yet, not everyone’s quite in that place to go to a 5,000-person event,” says Varney. “We’ve got home programs, we’ve got live events if you’re ready for it, we’ve got ways to train virtually with your teams, all kinds of things. So, no matter where you are as a customer right now—because you are different than you were two years ago—we’ve got something for you.”
Missed our chat? Watch the on-demand event with Spartan Race’s Aja Varney.