When it comes to helping banks sell mutual funds through their retail branches, Dreyfus Corp. is tops.

So said the majority of bankers who responded to a survey conducted by Dalbar Inc., a Boston-based research firm.

Each year, Dalbar asks bankers to grade their overall satisfaction with fund companies. Dreyfus, a New York-based fund company that manages $76.5 billion in assets, took top honors this year after finishing 10th out of 12 firms in the 1995 survey.

"Among the top needs of banks is training and we've put a lot of emphasis on that," explained Stephen Burke, senior vice president overseeing sales through banks at Dreyfus, a subsidiary of Mellon Bank Corp.

Providing marketing support, training sessions, and high-tech services is essential if a mutual fund company is to remain a solid player in the bank marketplace. Sales of even the best performing funds will slip if their sponsors don't support the brokerages.

Dalbar surveyed 373 department managers at 352 banks in telephone interviews between April and June and asked them to grade their satisfaction with fund companies on a scale of one to four.

While calling Dreyfus' turnaround "noteworthy," Dalbar market research manager Lauren Himml offered one caveat: The company's market share on the retail side is "relatively small," making it easier to serve its clients.

By contrast, "almost everybody sells Putnam Investments," she said. "That makes it really challenging to maintain service levels across the board." Boston-based Putnam ranked eighth in the survey.

Of the 12 fund companies that dominate the bank marketplace, 11 received scores of 3.1 or better - topped by Dreyfus' 3. 7 - revealing that banks are at least satisfied.

The only exception was Fidelity Investments, Boston. The nation's largest fund company scored a 2.92, indicating that not all banks were satisfied with the company's service. Ms. Himml said she was surprised that Fidelity didn't rank higher, because the company has spent heavily on technology to help brokers expedite transactions.

"For all of its high-tech, Fidelity may be low touch," she said.

Ms. Himml noted, however, that some of the 13 banks that said they sell Fidelity's portfolios said they were very satisfied with the company.

A Fidelity spokesman said the company took issue with the study results, which its executives had yet to see. The study was "inconsistent with our own surveys and customer feedback," the spokesman said.

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