Keynote Systems is out with its recurring list of the top performing bank websites, and the data behind the data suggests one way to win the hearts and minds is through live web chat. That news isn't as good as it sounds, since live web chat is not the easiest or cheapest thing in the world for a financial institution to pull off.

"When you offer live chat, you have to staff it with people with real time communication skills. You have to be able to give an immediate response, and be able to roll with the comments you may get online. Then you also have to have the writing skills of a good email rep.

These people are hard to find. It's a rare breed because you're talking about two different skills that you normally don't have in one person," says Chris Musto, general manager of Keynote Competitive Research at Keynote Systems.

Bank of America (BAC), which ranked particularly well in Keynote's Banker Scorecard, has offered live web chat for a couple of years. While Musto says Keynote doesn't directly study the performance of live web chat, the firm has noted an increase in customer satisfaction and ease of use measurements at BofA and other banks that offer live web chat that has followed the introduction of that feature.

"Live chat is still nascent at banks, and most people are not seeing it at online banks," Musto says, adding that of the approximately two dozen banks Keynote tracks, only BofA, Citi (C), Huntington (HBAN), PNC (PNC) and Webster Bank (WBS) offer live web chat.

Like a lot of new web and mobile functions, consumer taste for live chat is coming from other retail habits such as shopping for clothes online. Musto says that has increased the expectation that consumers can chat online with bank reps in near real time. "We see that one predictor of a bank doing well is having live web chat," he says.

In the Keynote 2012 2Q Banker Scorecard rankings, Bank of America repeated as Keynote's overall winner, and tied for first place in functionality with Wells Fargo (WFC). BofA also took first place in ease of use, privacy and security, and quality and availability of its site. The bank also placed first among the 23 large and regional banks tracked by Keynote in "look up information," "transact," and "learn and plan." Citigroup (C) won for account opening and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) won for "get service." Keynote also noted 13 banks now offer SMS, mobile and at least two smartphone apps.

In a statement to BTN, Bank of America said it's introduced a number of enhancements to its website over the past year, including an online banking user interface that includes enhanced deposit, card and home loan transaction detail to simplify the user experience and expanded to include related services for the respective products. It also refreshed visual layout based on voice of the customer input and usability studies.

Based on that feedback, it introduced a prominent, concise account summary containing the most-sought-after account information (balance, due dates, etc.); new navigation with links to common account services such as Keep the Change, overdraft, make a payment, etc.; and improved readability and navigation within account transaction history.

Bank of America also introduced what it calls BankAmeriDeals, or customer cash back and coupons offered based on how customers use Bank of America credit and debit cards. The bank called live chat a "key part" of its offering, but didn't elaborate on staffing strategy.

In a statement to BTN, Well Fargo said its navigation and search improvements over the past year have included a new home lending site that guides users though home financing decisions before buying a home.

In Keynote's separate 2012 Bank Marketing study, BB&T (BBT) took first place for overall customer experience, while in technical quality Wells Fargo took first for responsiveness and U.S. bank scored first for reliability.

Musto says BB&T's site is particularly effective in that it analyzes customer information to produce the financial offer that best fits that consumer's profile — an offer that's outlined on the site. But the bank still gives consumers other options to provide added choice and put the consumer in the driver's seat. "The bank knows what product you should probably get if you're a consumer, but by using the site, you realize it yourself," he says.

Keynote engages in what it calls internet and mobile cloud testing and monitoring. The firm maintains a testing infrastructure for mobile and websites with more than 7,000 measurement computers and mobile devices in 275 locations that monitor performance, application lifecycle management and quality of service testing.

The firm examines factors such as speed of response, response time consistency, geographic uniformity and load handling. For customer experience, Keynote observed and conducted online interviews with 2,000 prospective online banking customers as they interacted with the websites of a number of large banks. For technical quality testing, Keynote performed 6,000 measurements for each site from 12 locations daily between 8 a.m. and midnight EST over a 12 month period.