Spencer Barclay: “Exceed expectations”

Exceed expectations. There are many amazing products and services out there, yet I often feel underwhelmed by them when I first experience them. This is because of an overbearing combination of marketing copy and sales tactics have led me to believe that these products were bigger and better than I could ever dream and that […]

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Exceed expectations. There are many amazing products and services out there, yet I often feel underwhelmed by them when I first experience them. This is because of an overbearing combination of marketing copy and sales tactics have led me to believe that these products were bigger and better than I could ever dream and that they were the solution to every problem I would ever have when that is rarely the case. One of our investors has said multiple times that “disappointment is the sum of unmet expectations”. Instead, let the product speak for itself. Don’t be afraid to under-promise and over-deliver.

As part of my series about the five things a business should do to create a Wow! customer experience, I had the pleasure of interviewing Spencer Barclay. Spencer is the Founder and CEO of Savology, an online platform that provides fast and free financial planning. Spencer is a serial entrepreneur that has been involved in multiple financial related startup ventures. Spencer has a track record of growing successful companies and leading successful teams in larger organizations to deliver excellent customer experiences. He lives in Utah with his young family and is passionate about economics, entrepreneurship, golf, and football.

Thank you so much for joining us! 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?

Growing up, I always thought that I was going to be a lawyer. Over time, that changed from wanting to be a lawyer to wanting to run a law firm as a business. Eventually, I dropped the law component altogether when I discovered the excitement of business in all forms that I could participate in without the arduous grind of three years in law school.

While I was working on my undergraduate degree in economics, I started experimenting with small businesses on the side, starting and helping to start companies in credit, business consulting, and estate planning. While working on my MBA, I got an offer to go develop a 401(k) provider with a business partner. This is what ultimately prompted me to drop my plans for law school.

Over the next few years, we built a successful business by differentiating our offer and service from the traditional plan market. We eventually sold the company to a large, publicly traded HSA provider.

Throughout those several years of experimenting, I saw first-hand how much of an impact a business can have. I learned that business could be a powerful force of innovation and change to drive economies, markets, and industries to improve.

I also got a detailed look into the personal finances and savings habits of hundreds of thousands of people. I saw how much help households need with their personal finances. I decided to do something about it, using business again as a force for change in the lives of others. That brings us to the present and my new venture, Savology.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

At the time, I didn’t feel like it was a funny mistake, but I look back at it much more fondly now because I don’t think it had a long term impact and I was able to learn a few important lessons from it. This story was from the early days at Savology, not necessarily the early days of my career.

Essentially, we botched one of the most critical pieces of our public launch at Savology.

We had felt like we were ready to launch because we had really nailed the web application components, the financial planning platform, of Savology. The onboarding was seamless, the algorithms were working correctly, and beta users were reporting positive experiences. That wasn’t the problem though. The problem was on the marketing website, which was hosted separately.

For the whole week leading up to launch, we were experiencing difficulties with the marketing website, unresponsive servers, slow loading times, and more. As a side project to the platform launch, we tried to patch the issues by reducing image sizes, removing bugs, and upgrading hosting packages. It would start working okay for a bit but would go back to underperforming within hours.

I can’t even tell you why, but I made the decision to effectively ignore this and just hope that it would work correctly the next morning when I should have been focusing on it or replacing it for the weeks leading up to it.

We were all geared up to send out a press release at launch and emailed hundreds of people that we were now publicly available after a couple of months of testing and fine-tuning. The press release and emails went out the morning of launch as planned. The initial traffic flow crashed the website. Dozens of journalists and influencers couldn’t access what we were telling them. Hundreds of prospective customers weren’t able to sign up. I’m sure we instantly lost some credibility.

But we responded quickly. Apparently, it took all that to make us recognize that it was a problem and do something about it. We spent the next two hours with all hands-on deck, to completely redo and replace the marketing site, migrating it to an alternative solution. It would have been an endeavor that we would have traditionally dedicated a couple of weeks too and instead, we had to do it in a couple of hours.

Sure, we lost out on some traffic and lost some credibility, but that is long forgotten. Instead, I learned never to rely on luck to make something go right. Instead, always put yourself in the best possible position. I also learned how important and impactful a united team can be. They came together to quickly fix a problem that I was largely responsible for. And now, we have a better, faster, and more reliable site that has served us incredibly well since then.

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?

I am grateful for so many people who have helped get me to where I am now and continue to help me improve. I am eternally grateful for the unwavering support of my wife, Kelsey Barclay. I am personally indebted to my former business partner, Matt Bradley for believing in me and providing me with opportunities for personal and professional development. And there are numerous college professors that helped shape me and continue to support me.

But more than anyone else, I attribute and thank my dad, Kirk Barclay, for helping me become the person I am today. He is an exemplary person. Throughout my childhood, he modeled integrity, perseverance, and diligence in all that he did. He taught me to work. He taught me to think. He taught me strong character values. He also provided me the opportunity to see firsthand what it was like to start a business, grow a business, and run a business through both the good times and the bad times.

I’ll never forget two of the core lessons that he taught me.

The first lesson I learned from him was to work harder and smarter than anyone else. From the time I was 7 or 8, I would go to work with him. He ran a plant nursery which meant that there was plenty to do for little kids, both for fun and for work. Starting in my early teen years, he dragged me and my brother to work with him every day, every summer, plus some nights and weekends. We had the option of going to work with him willingly and getting paid for it, or unwillingly and working for free.

The second was to get an education. I can’t even count the number of times he told me to make sure that I got a proper education so that I could do what I wanted in life with unlimited opportunity, not to be held back in any regard by the lack of knowledge or a formal degree.

A telling example of these is when I returned from a two-year service mission abroad in Europe. I came home in March 2010 at the age of 21. I was tired from two years of 80+ hour work weeks and fresh off a long, transatlantic flight. Instead of letting me rest and recoup the next morning, my Dad woke me up to go to work with him. On the way to work, before the sun was up, he talked to me about my short-term goals, long-term goals, and when I was going to enroll in college.

It may seem trivial, but those small acts added up to me never being able to let off the gas pedal.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. This might be intuitive, but I think it’s helpful to specifically articulate it. In your words, can you share a few reasons why great customer service and a great customer experience is essential for success in business?

Our modernized and globalized economy has virtually mandated great service and remarkable customer experiences for new companies in two ways. First, there are so many alternatives out there to every product and service that the ones that provide the best experience tend to capture market share and to win out in the long run. Second, people are more connected than ever before, which means that user experiences travel fast. The best user experiences spread like wildfire and the worst ones can permanently mar the reputation of a brand.

Think about it, if you have a poor experience with a company, it generally isn’t difficult to take your business elsewhere. Then, often out of frustration, you cathartically tell everyone you know what happened with a single social post. Alternatively, if you have a remarkable experience, you spread the word and are often even incentivized to do so.

We have all had times either in a store, or online, when we’ve had a very poor experience as a customer or user. If the importance of a good customer experience is so intuitive, and apparent, where is the disconnect? How is it that so many companies do not make this a priority?

It would be tough to say that it doesn’t matter to some companies because I don’t think that is necessarily true. It often is listed as a priority, it is talked about at many levels within organizations, but it just isn’t easy to execute effectively.

That is especially the case in more established companies where existing precedent, incentives, technologies, and even culture come from their outdated ways of doing business. Changing the way business has been done for decades is an uphill battle and redirecting a large ship to start making that climb is no easy feat.

This long-established precedent also has an impact on consumer behavior. Consumers may not be “punishing” these dated business models the same way they are with new companies. Effectively, consumers have learned to live with or even accept some of the practices and disappointments within these organizations just because that is how they have always known it to be.

There is good news though. I think more consumers are waking up to this and will let their voices be heard. Consequently, I think most companies see the writing on the wall and are proactively making changes to address this. Not all companies will come around, but the ones who want to survive certainly will.

Do you think that more competition helps force companies to improve the customer experience they offer? Are there other external pressures that can force a company to improve the customer experience?

Competition absolutely has an impact on this and I believe that competition is currently driving most businesses to improve customer experiences.

Some companies, however, have not chosen to compete on customer service. That is only segment in a competitive matrix to compete traditionally. Others can still be successful by competing on price, technology, or niche, but customer experience will still be a differentiating factor and point of comparison between those as well.

The two external pressures that I view as most impactful come from consumers and from new entrants to the market.

Consumers have the ability to influence outcomes and drive change. As previously mentioned, consumers can and should expect more and speak up, especially when it relates to firmly established organizations. Consumers should use their spending power to effectively vote to support and reward or punish corporate behaviors. In this way, they can prompt organizations to recognize and respond to consumer needs.

New entrants to the market, often in the form of startups or technologies, can also have a significant impact on the customer experience. The advent and success of online banking by companies like Ally Bank and USAA has helped make the overall experience better even for brick and mortar branches by raising the bar for technology and availability. Some new car companies like Tesla and mattress companies like Casper and Purple bypass the middleman to save on cost, to liberate return policies, and to control outcomes, which challenges competitors to up their game as well.

Can you share with us a story from your experience about a customer who was “Wowed” by the experience you provided?

I can think of several specific examples of remarkable experiences, in our 401(k) administration company where customer interactions were core to our business. But instead of focusing on that, I think it is important to highlight remarkable experiences in other types of businesses, such as our current business.

At Savology, our communication with users is rather limited. We don’t get customer service phone calls and support emails all the time to interact with our clients. Instead, our free financial planning technology platform is the primary experience. Yet, we still strive to provide remarkable experiences.

The story that I share begins with a referral from someone who enjoyed their experience with us enough to share it with a friend. Sam, who was an active evangelist of ours, invited Brennon, a former classmate of his, to use our platform. Sam and Brennon went to school together, majoring in personal financial planning. Since Brennon was working in the industry, he thought it would be relevant to him, but also recognized that Brennon might be overly critical of a potential competitor.

Brennon built a financial plan and was amazed at how much value we could provide for free and in so little time, where he was charging thousands of dollars and spending hours of time. We exceeded his expectations so much that he invited 6 other people to get their own financial plans right away with us. He then spent hours of his own time, going through the platform, writing out, and sending notes on the things that he personally liked and other things that we could do in the future to open up our user base and distribution channels.

Did that Wow! Experience have any long-term ripple effects? Can you share the story?

Oh, yes! In some ways, this was a tipping point for our young and growing company. In addition to the feedback and customer referrals that I previously mentioned, you better believe that we hired Sam to join us at Savology, partnered with Brennon’s company to help their clients similarly, and we are now finalizing a direct capital funding from the CEO of that company. These few effects are shaping the future direction of our company.

Every remarkable experience doesn’t end up with ripple effects as significant as that, but this is an illustrative example of how solving a real problem in a unique and meaningful way while surpassing expectations can make a difference for an organization, large or small.

Ok, here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience. Please share a story or an example for each.

There are numerous ways to create a remarkable customer experience. There is some degree of variation from one industry to another, but these 5 keys to customer experience success stand true universally.

1 . Get to know your customers and listen to what they have to say!

Everyone knows that one of the most important roles of a CEO is to shape the strategic direction of the company. What is sometimes left out of that conversation is that getting to know and understand your customer is the most valuable way to determine that. As you listen to what they have to say, you will learn the bare minimum that you have to do to be successful. But as you truly get to know them, you will be able to understand what they want on an entirely different level, often to the point where you know what they want before they are able to articulate it.

This was especially important in the early days of Savology. We knew that we wanted to solve some key problems with personal finance for millennials, but we didn’t know exactly how to do that. We came up with an idea of how to do that. But after meeting with hundreds of prospective customers and doing market research through surveys with thousands of people we found that we were going about it all wrong. We were able to identify a better way to solve the problem without a single one of them suggesting it specifically.

2 . Build remarkability into your values and culture

Customer experience needs to be built into the very fabric of your organization. It should be part of your company’s mission, vision, or core values. If your team members don’t understand how explicitly important it is, they will often fall short of the mark. It should be discussed throughout the interview process, taught thoroughly in new hire orientation, and emphasized continuously.

At Savology, Remarkability is one of our 6 core values. The value further reads “We strive to be 10x better in all that we do in order to be worthy of attention recognition, and promotion”. Interestingly enough, we also recognize those customer relationships and experiences in 3 of our other values. In our Partnership value, “We grow and succeed through internal and external relationships. In our Integrity value, “We do the right thing for our users, our team members, our partners, and our shareholders.” And in Prosperity, “We succeed when our customers prosper. We prosper when we are profitable.”

3 . Exceed expectations

There are many amazing products and services out there, yet I often feel underwhelmed by them when I first experience them. This is because of an overbearing combination of marketing copy and sales tactics have led me to believe that these products were bigger and better than I could ever dream and that they were the solution to every problem I would ever have when that is rarely the case.

One of our investors has said multiple times that “disappointment is the sum of unmet expectations”. Instead, let the product speak for itself. Don’t be afraid to under-promise and over-deliver.

When we were building Savology, we decided that we wanted to “wow” customers with how much value we could provide for free. We are replacing an expensive and time-consuming financial plan with a digital experience and we want them to feel like they are getting every bit of that traditional value, but for free. On top of the time-saving and money-saving aspects, we have tried to further improve the experience by making a comprehensive plan more understandable, digestible, and actionable than a traditional plan. That wasn’t easy to do!

4 . Be unique, memorable, and consistent.

This is easier said than done, but it is absolutely critical. There are three distinct components here. First, you need to be able to stand out from the crowd by being unique. You need to be noticed or you will never get a chance to prove yourself. Then, you have to make a big enough impact to be memorable. If that memorable experience can be emotional it is even stronger. And finally, you must be consistent in providing that great experience. Even a small instance of falling short of the expectation or reputation that you have built can hurt your brand.

This combination of three things is what we refer to as being remarkable, and what you are calling a Wow! Experience.

5 . Reward progress and performance

It is so important to recognize and reward the right behaviors and outcomes. Managers should be empowered to reward team members and should be encouraged to do so proactively. Celebrate big wins as a team or as an organization. The more you talk about it and the more you reward it, the more often it will occur.

I love hearing the stories of companies that provide significant spot bonuses or recurring awards for teams or team members that provide such an experience. While we aren’t quite to that point yet with Savology, we do provide recognition of performance and success in this area, and that can be equally meaningful if done correctly.

In conclusion, it isn’t easy to provide superior customer experience, but it is worthwhile. It also isn’t easy to implement all these tips at once, but each one should provide incremental, if not exponential, value as you strive for remarkability across the board.

Are there a few things that can be done so that when a customer or client has a Wow! experience, they inspire others to reach out to you as well?

There are more tools than ever to find out if someone has an amazing experience and then to help them share that experience. That starts with making sure they have remarkable experiences by exceeding expectations.

We try to build the sharing into our product, our user experience, and our communications. From the beginning of our welcome email series, we provide the information needed and some incentives to share the product. Within the web application, we highlight widgets for users to provide us with direct feedback. We proactively ask for customer reviews and testimonials. The feedback shapes the direction of our product and the digital reviews are powerful customer acquisition instruments.

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. 🙂

I asked myself a similar question when I was deciding on what type of company I would start this time. Working backward on this equation, I figured that the most important difference I could make in the lives of many people would be to help them improve their finances, to remove some of that stress in the short term, and to improve their financial outcomes in the long run.

I truly believe that the broader impact of getting every household to financial security cannot be matched. To do this, I want to accelerate the day where a financial plan is as ubiquitous in American households, and eventually global households, as a credit score.

If everyone knew what they were working towards by setting goals and found out what they needed to do to reach financial security, the world would be a better place. Millions wouldn’t be stuck in poverty. Divides in socioeconomic classes would disintegrate. Crime would decrease. Families could spend more time together. Tax rates could fall. The government could focus on other important matters. The economy could thrive and people could prosper.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I can be found on Twitter at @SCBarclay or even more professionally on LinkedIn, but for the valuable content that really makes a personal difference, I recommend following Savology instead of me!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About the Author:

Kristin Marquet served as the Creative Director of the award-winning PR firm, Creative Development Agency. She oversaw the day-to-day operations of the agency as well as directed all client accounts and projects. With a strong eye for creating memorable brands and a diverse range of knowledge, Kristin provided strategic counsel to clients interested in developing successful internal and external communication programs across all media platforms for more than a decade.

In 2017, Kristin launched the emerging spinoff media company, FemFounder.co that helps creative female entrepreneurs plan, launch, and scale their businesses. FemFounder is a one-stop resource for everything on entrepreneurship, digital marketing, PR, and social media marketing. Now, Kristin runs Marquet-Media.com, a boutique creative consultancy that designs beautiful and feminine brands in the wedding, beauty and fashion, wellness and fitness, cooking, photography, and interior design industries.

Passionate about learning, Kristin has advanced studies in data and marketing analytics. She has attended MIT, Boston University, and New York University and holds degrees in literature and marketing/public relations. She has contributed to Forbes.com, Inc.com, HuffingtonPost.com, Entrepreneur.com, and NYDailyNews.com.

In 2015, she also authored the book, Squash the competition and Dominate your marketplace: 55 easy Tips to Generate Big Publicity for your startup or small businessand in 2018 cowrote the Amazon bestseller, Publicity Jumpstart: 10 Ways to Get Your Brand in the Press. She is also the author of the upcoming book, From Nameless to Notable: How to Gain Influence, Establish Authority, and Reach Expert Status in Your Niche or Industry The Ultimate Guide to Generating Media Coverage for Your Startup and Leveraging It to Increase Website Traffic, Email Subscribers, and Sales. Most recently, she joined the Young Entrepreneur Council.

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