For the first time in three years, banking companies that manage mutual funds have won Dalbar Inc. awards for service to investors.

Boston-based Dalbar honored three bank-owned fund groups in its 1999 review, First Union Corp.'s Evergreen Funds, Chase Manhattan Corp.'s Vista Funds, and Bank of America Corp.'s Nations Funds.

Banking companies have shown "more of a corporate commitment to service," said Kathleen Whalen, director of the award program. "There's a level of understanding that service is an important component of meeting customer needs."

Dalbar tested 64 fund groups last year, including nine bank-run funds. Playing the role of an investor or financial adviser, Dalbar examines areas such as processing speed and the competence of telephone representatives.

For Chase, success came from measuring the performance of its $55 billion-asset Vista Fund family against the best fund companies in the industry, said Sarah Jones, head of global sales and marketing for the funds. That includes Chase's performance in areas such as response time or availability of information on the Internet.

"It's typical for funds to focus on how they were doing before, so you end up getting marginal improvements," she said. "We want to be as good as Putnam and Fidelity."

"We've always had a fairly intense focus on customer service," said William Ennis, chief executive officer of First Union's Evergreen Investment Co.

Mr. Ennis said he has worked hard to improve areas such as processing capabilities and account security.

In addition, Evergreen recently appointed two senior sales executives: Scott Bresky, who joined the group last week as national sales manager in the bank channel, and Maryann Bruce, who took over as president of Evergreen Investment Services Inc. in October.

An Evergreen spokesman cited an increase in assets under management -- from $7 billion in 1994 to $80 billion now -- as evidence that the company's efforts are paying off, but some observers questioned how important customer service really is.

Customer service "may help on the retention side, but it never comes up as a strong determining factor in buying a fund," said Dennis Gallant, a consultant at Cerulli Associates in Boston.

As the Internet becomes a more important transaction medium, customer service is becoming less important, he said.

A fund executive disagreed.

"There are 7,000 mutual funds out there today -- finding a good-performing product is not difficult," said Robert H. Gordon, president of Banc of America Investment Advisors Inc., which manages the $81 billion-asset Nations Funds. "The key differentiator is other components, such as customer service."

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