When it comes to statements from financial services providers, there is one subject on which all consumers agree - they hate that small type.
Other than that, though, what they want from bank, insurance, and mutual funds statements varies widely with age and income, a survey report by Dalbar Inc. concludes. "You can't make blanket decisions about these items," said Louis S. Harvey, president of the Boston research and consulting firm. Common practice is to send the same types of statements to all customers, but that policy should be reconsidered, he said.
Dalbar's report, "Consumer Statement Preferences 2000," draws from interviews in which people were asked to comment on the importance of details including type size, use of color, variety of paper, and the inclusion of advertisements in the statement. They were also asked consumers how frequently they like to receive statements and whether they would like to get them electronically.
The seemingly minor details could have major implications for financial services companies, which typically spend hundreds of millions a year on promotional material. In fact, Dalbar research has found that the mutual fund and annuity industry alone spends $5 billion a year communicating with clients.
Financial services companies have a lot at stake when weighing costs against the need to impress customers with fancy features, Mr. Harvey said. Consumers have problems with "every one of the major cost-saving methods," he noted, which "suggests that yes, you can save money, but you can't do it across the board."
He said one finding especially struck him: "In spite of the Internet environment, people were still so adamant about getting their paper statements." He surmised that they would not be comfortable without tangible proof of ownership, for legal and administrative reasons.
"Householding" - consolidating statements - was "critically important" to 22% of the survey audience, while 55% said it made no difference to them.
Mr. Harvey said that goes to show that some people - unmarried couples, for instance - want more privacy in financial matters than others - older, married couples, for instance.
It also highlights the importance of giving consumers choice before making a change in how statements are delivered, he said.
Neither consumers with net worth less than $100,000 nor those with more than $1 million put much value on fancy paper and color printed statements, but those in the middle ranked such features high.
"I guess they feel they have made it and they want all the trappings of their accomplishments," Mr. Harvey said of the $100,000-to-$500,000 net-worth group.
Most financial institutions' statements are uniform. Dalbar's research suggests they should be tailored by customer groups, Mr. Harvey said.
"The financial services industry fails to do that," he said. In most instances, "if you had a million dollars in your checking account, you'd get the same statement as somebody who has a hundred bucks.
The industry should begin to recognize the value that high-net-worth individuals will place on being treated specially."
He gave frequent-flier upgrades as an example of such treatment.
Overall, he said, the report shows that statements are not as simple as they seem - and that financial institutions need to offer consumers more variety.