Many financial services companies are not responding to customer e-mail inquiries or are not answering them adequately, a survey by Celent Communications concludes.

Celent, a research and consulting firm in Boston, tested 150 financial services' companies Web sites in April. It said 56% either did not accept e-mail inquiries or did not respond to the ones they received. Of the 44% that replied, 21% failed to provide a satisfactory response, the company said.

Several companies overwhelmed by e-mail have simply turned the response function off, said Meredith Hickman, an analyst at Celent. "They are missing out on a great opportunity," she said.

Results of the survey, which was sponsored by Onyx Software Corp., Microsoft Corp., and Genesys Labs, were released Monday.

Financial services firms will spend $500 million this year to develop Internet technologies, according to Celent. Meanwhile, they are "stranding potential customers in cyberspace and leaving enormous investments unrealized," said Octavio Marenzi, managing director of Celent.

Celent had people posing as well-qualified customers send e-mail inquiries about loan rates, mortgage refinancings, the opening of high-net-worth accounts, and other topics to traditional banks, brokerages, mutual fund companies, insurance companies, and Internet-only companies; they were given two business weeks to respond.

Mortgage and loan companies led with an 80% response rate, against 60% for Internet-only companies and 40% for traditional banks, which placed last.

Celent attributed the mortgage and loan companies' success largely to their use of an online chat function, Ms. Hickman said. One such company, Countrywide Home Loans, lets customers schedule a callback time.

"Mortgages are a lot more difficult, and consumers might need a little help," Ms. Hickman said. "Clearly the big players have someone sitting on the other end."

For the most part, however, responses from the financial services companies were poor, Celent said. Only 23% of the firms that responded provided acceptable information.

Of the responses Celent classified as "inadequate," 25% overloaded the "customer" with generic information - sometimes up to three pages long - and 41% asked them to call the company, essentially reverting to the traditional format.

Another 14% simply referred the customer back to the Web site that had failed to provide appropriate information in the first place, Celent said. The remaining subpar responses either provided the wrong information or none at all.

While Internet-only companies were quick to respond with an often inadequate e-mail, traditional banks "actually picked up the phone and answered the question" in the few instances that they did respond, said Mary Marks, director of financial services industry marketing at Onyx, a provider of customer service software.

But Ms. Hickman said such callbacks are ineffective. "Unless a consumer has two phone lines," she said, "a person has to get off the Web site, and the call center representative and the consumer are not looking at the same thing."

Fifty percent of the institutions required people to fill out extensive forms and provide their Social Security numbers, financial information, and phone numbers. But though they may have requested a phone number, fewer than 20% of the online forms asked what time of day, which day of the week, or what method of contact was preferred.

"Those institutions that asked for the most information were those that did not provide adequate responses," Ms. Hickman said.

All but 5% of the companies failed to follow up. "A follow-up call is an easy way to give a customer some extra services," Ms. Hickman said.

Banks need to better coordinate their call center representatives, branch tellers, and the Internet, Celent concluded. "Bricks and clicks have the potential to do it well," Ms. Hickman said. "It's just a matter of collaborating all of their resources."

Ms. Marks said a traditional brick-and-mortar call center "would never keep a customer on hold for more than a day."

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