Insurance companies' Web sites lag their mutual fund counterparts in serving financial professionals despite insurers' dependence on intermediaries for sales, Dalbar Inc. says.

"Insurance companies were asleep at the wheel" when others were developing Web sites, said Louis S. Harvey, president of the Boston-based financial services rating and research firm. It released its latest quarterly ranking of professional and consumer sites Tuesday.

"While mutual fund companies were moving right ahead, insurance companies for several years have considered the Internet the enemy of their sales force," Mr. Harvey said.

Invesco had the best score among consumer sites and the best overall: 86 on Dalbar's 100-point scale. The No. 1 professional site was Fidelity's, with an 85, and the best score for insurance companies was American Skandia's 47.

"The top sites allow the financial professional to transact for their clients," Mr. Harvey said.

He noted that about 85% of insurance is sold through agents or brokers, while only about half of mutual funds are. The reliance on agents would suggest that insurance companies would provide better support to financial pros, but Dalbar has not found that to be the case.

Dalbar has been ranking financial services Web sites since the fourth quarter of 1999 on four basic categories: functionality, ease of use, freshness of content, and overall reliability. Each category has numerous subcategories. Dalbar regularly canvasses consumers and financial professionals about features they want most in a Web site.

"The opinion of the user is taken into consideration, but not on a case-by-case basis," Mr. Harvey said.

He predicted that efficiency will become increasingly important for financial professionals in their use of the Internet.

"The key variable for financial professionals going forward is the number of clients they are able to handle," he said, noting that many of them are chasing the same middle-market financial consumer.

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