Large traditional banks are now generally better than Internet-only banks at serving customers over the Web, Speer & Associates Inc. says.
"Traditional financial institutions are closing the gaps," said Richard Speer, chief executive officer of the Atlanta research and consulting firm. "Internet-only sites are mediocre, and whatever advantage they may or may not have had five years ago they don't have anymore."
In its fifth quarterly survey of Internet financial sites the firm reviewed 172 of them, bank and nonbank, in the United States, Canada, and Latin America.
The only Internet bank to stand out was a newcomer, Juniper Bank, which opened in the fall. Speer rated it as the best financial Web site, beating out American Express Corp. and Citigroup Inc., which ranked second and third, respectively.
"The news for Juniper is that it came from nowhere with a great transaction platform, but whether or not it has a business proposition is still another issue," Mr. Speer said.
On the whole, Internet banks fell behind major diversified U.S. banks in the rankings. Traditional banks improved their customer service on the Internet during the quarter and displaced six Internet banks in the process. Only three Internet banks advanced in the service-capabilities ranking, according to the survey.
Internet banks excelled at reducing expenses, but mostly failed to offer consumers personalized experiences, the study said. As Internet-only banks increasingly add delivery channels, such as automated teller machines and branches, Speer predicts they will need to develop superior personalized customer service to compete against the traditional banks.
"At the end of the day you need relationships with customers," Mr. Speer said.
By contrast, traditional banks are transforming themselves online with new platforms and customer relationship management initiatives, and they have more customers, Mr. Speer said.
Nine of the top 25 Internet financial sites rated 4.0 or better (on a scale of one to five), up from only four sites in the September survey. Besides Juniper Bank, the new members of the club are People's Bank of Connecticut, Fidelity Investments, PaineWebber Inc., and J.P. Morgan & Co.; already members were American Express Co., Citigroup Inc., Comerica Inc., and Charles Schwab & Co.
The addition of features such as account aggregation, bill presentment, personalized content, financial planning tools, and personalized messaging helped catapult the five into the upper rankings.
Traditional banks with drastic improvements displaced many Internet banks. ABN Amro's LaSalle Bank, for example, moved up 148 spots, to No. 29, and M&T Bank, jumped 99 spots, to No. 31.
Most of the companies Speer surveyed earned rankings of three to four, indicating a proficiency in providing core transaction capabilities, such as account balances, funds transfers, or bill payments. But since transactional capabilities are becoming standard, financial companies need to broaden their online product sets and retain online customers, the survey said.
Speer said it expected the ratings to continue to climb."The biggest banks are not the only ones on top," Mr. Speer said.