Most depository institutions are pleased with their fund providers' off-site services, but want improved on-site services, a survey concludes.

In general, the 358 banks, thrifts, and credit unions that responded to the survey gave higher ratings to the services provided at their mutual fund companies' offices than to marketing, training, and wholesaler field support.

The survey, conducted by St. Petersburg, Fla.-based American Brokerage Consultants Inc. for the ABA Securities Association, ranks the 23 mutual fund providers most frequently listed by the depository institutions as their major vendors.

Respondents were asked to rate their top five mutual fund providers on a scale of 1 to 5 in ten categories such as product diversity, pricing and load structure, and ease of sales processing.

The average grade for product diversity, for instance, was 4.18, while the average in the wholesaler field support category was only 3.33.

Liberty Financial was the top-ranked vendor overall, with a composite score of 4.57. It was followed by Hartford, at 4.33, and Delaware Group, at 4.14. Oppenheimer Funds Distributors, at 4.11, and Van Kampen American Capital, at 4.10, rounded out the top five.

As fund products become increasingly similar, bankers said, good service is what differentiates one fund from another.

"There are so many mutual funds out there, they have become a commodity," said Robert L. Ash, the managing director of Fleet Investment Management, a division of Fleet Financial Group.

Though Fleet tries to provide investors with a range of choices by selecting specific funds rather than fund companies, Mr. Ash said, service is certainly important. The difference between funds lies in "service, support, and helping the investment advisers grow their entire business," he said.

"What distinguishes our top fund families is really top wholesaling," said Felice L. Larmer, the president of FirstMerit Investment Services, a subsidiary of FirstMerit NA of Akron, Ohio.

That means "wholesalers who are visible and give great sales ideas," she said. Ms. Larmer said FirstMerit's two top fund providers, Oppenheimer and Dreyfus, stood out in the wholesale support area.

William A. Dent, the director of asset advisory services at McDonald Investments, a subsidiary of KeyCorp, agreed.

If the wholesale and service support is strong, he said, "someone will stick with you in the rough times. No one hits the numbers all the time."

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