A festive atmosphere here at the national mortgage servicing conference of the Mortgage Bankers Association of America's did not entirely mask a sense of urgency.

Though the thousand or more who roamed the exhibit halls last week were decked in colorful Mardi Gras beads, their appetites sated by French Quarter feasts, the recent surge in mortgage refinancings was never far from the surface.

Indeed, a siege mentality prevailed whenever conventioneers got down to the business at hand: how to protect their portfolios as homeowners rush to take advantage of lower rates by refinancing.

"Portfolio retention in any sort of refi market is absolutely critical," said Greg Harrington, senior vice president of Chase Manhattan Mortgage, Edison, N.J.

Mr. Harrington said that if companies did not learn lessons from the 1993 refinance boom, they will have trouble keeping customers now. Chase, which developed a data management program two and a half years ago, can now contact customers who would have a propensity to refinance before they call other servicers, he said.

Not all companies are this advanced, however. David Allison, senior vice president of Dovenmuehle Mortgage, a Schaumburg, Ill., subservicer, said mortgage companies have been improving their customer service relationships but are not as savvy as credit card companies, mutual fund companies, and insurers.

John Cleary, senior vice president of Source One Mortgage Corp., Farmington Hills, Mich., said servicers have sometimes sacrificed higher standards of customer service for lower costs.

The surge in demand for refinances last month did not help mortgage companies' reputations. Many customers faced interminable waits when calling their lenders with refinance-related questions, if they got through at all.

Ellen Rose, a managing director with BayView Financial Trading Group, Miami, said one client told her it could answer only 13% of 248,000 inbound calls last month.

Other servicers said consolidation in the industry further complicates their efforts to retain customers. Smaller companies often sell servicing rights soon after they originate loans and are required to sign nonsolicitation agreements with the buyer.

Borrowers often establish a relationship with a lender only to find that the servicing rights to their loan have been sold to another company. Larger servicers said they realize this process causes dissatisfaction among borrowers.

That is a chief concern for GE Capital Mortgage Services of Cherry Hill, N.J., said Sandra Lardani, a vice president, because it relies on wholesale channels to feed its servicing portfolio, buying loans from brokers and correspondents.

To keep business flowing, GE Capital Mortgage is developing a welcome kit to inform borrowers whose loans it services about itself and such GE Capital products as auto insurance and annuities, Ms. Lardani said.

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