Not all mutual fund services are equal.
The nonbank mutual fund companies that train bank brokers to prospect for clients are the ones distinguishing themselves, bank brokerage executives said in recent interviews.
"That's the most important service a fund company can provide for us," said Allen Croessman, Bank of Boston's managing director for retail marketing and investment services.
Brokerage executives at banks said training was even more important to them than a company's ability to keep accurate shareholder records, calculate commissions, or even provide a broad list of fund offerings.
Fund companies train brokers by sending out "wholesalers," salespeople who travel from bank to bank peddling the portfolios of the fund company's they work for. But bank brokerage chiefs said the better ones do more.
They teach brokers how to go outside the bank for new customers, and how to work with other departments in the bank to get referrals.
They help bank brokers organize seminars for customers. Good wholesalers teach brokers how individual funds fill a customer's retirement, estate planning, and other investment needs.
Training brokers is a priority among banks, because they are relatively new at selling mutual funds. Anybody can perform back-office operations, but the wholesalers are "extra arms and legs" for the bank, Mr. Croessman said.
Added Lincoln Yersin, president of Amsouth Investment Services, "Mutual funds are commodities; the best service comes down to the caliber of the wholesalers."
And what fund firms have the best wholesalers?
A recent survey by Dalbar Inc., a Boston-based research firm, found that banks ranked Oppenheimer Management, Federated Investors, and Van Kampen American Capital as three of the best providers of wholesalers.
The results about wholesalers were part of a broad-ranging survey of 285 bank brokerage presidents conducted last spring. The survey covered how banks rated mutual fund companies that sell portfolios through their retail branches and their trust departments.
Banks were asked to rate the fund companies on a variety of topics, including portfolio performances and the breadth of portfolios, and the various back-office operations, such as calculating commissions for brokers.
While bankers said all these services are important, their greatest priority is getting help training their brokers.
Banks want to improve the quality of their brokers, because they are more committed to their brokerage units than ever before, said Louis Harvey, Dalbar's president.
"When we first started conducting this survey, you couldn't find a banker who could spell mutual fund," he said. "Today, 62% of banks said selling investments was a core part of their business."
The company also surveyed banks about third-party marketing firms, those companies that help many bank brokerage units manage and market their programs.
Dalbar also asked banks which companies provide bank-managed mutual funds the best administrative and marketing services. Federated Investors, a Pittsburgh-based firm that manages $60.8 billion in assets, earned first place in nine of 10 categories.
Bank brokerage chiefs also rated third-party marketing firms, those companies that help banks set up and manage their programs for them. Essex Corp., New York, scored highest in more categories than any other firm.
The firms were rated on their reputations, how well they marketed bank programs, and their ability to perform due diligence on mutual fund and insurance companies.
In other findings: Brokerage chiefs said the fund companies with the best reputations were Federated Investors and Capital Research and Management, Los Angeles, the nation's fourth-largest fund company.
Bank brokerage executives also said the fund companies that supplied the best marketing materials were Oppenheimer, Putnam Investments, Federated, and Franklin Resources.