Mortgage lenders have done well in simplifying their Web sites for loan prospects but perform worse than other industries in communicating effectively and building trust, according to a recent ranking of financial services providers' treatment of online customers.
Those were among the findings in the Second Quarter 2006 Online Customer Respect Study of the Financial Services Industry conducted by the Customer Respect Group.
The group analyzed corporate performance from an online customer's perspective on Web site usability, communication and trust. Each company was assigned a Customer Respect Index rating, reportedly a qualitative and quantitative in-depth analysis and independent measure of a customer's interactive experience with companies via the Internet.
The group noted that recent research has shown that more than half of Internet user respondents said a poor online experience has a major impact on the overall view of the company, its reputation and brand image.
Financial services providers perform above average in making their sites usable to a wide range of users. The sector scored 6.7 out of 10, which is regarded as very good. Commercial banks were generally the best in site usability, the research group said.
In analyzing site usability, which includes ease of use and accessibility, about 58 percent of the sites provided comprehensive self-help facilities, such as site search, a frequently-asked-questions section and site maps, the group reported.
However, three-fourths of companies had areas on their site with poor color contrast, making it hard for visually impaired or color-blind users, and mortgage companies had the heaviest Web pages, making them less usable for dial-up users, according to the announcement.
"Communications" was the lowest scoring area for the sector, resulting from a "wildly erratic" set of scores. While 83 percent of online customers rate the ability to initiate a one-on-one dialog with the site as important, 33 percent of companies received a rating of poor for communications and only 17 percent received an excellent rating, the announcement said.
The group reportedly found that only 35 percent of e-mail questions were responded to within a day and that commercial banks demanded the most personal data as condition to submit a question.
And while 80 percent of users said being able to trust a site was extremely important to them before providing personal information or managing an account online, Customer Respect said financial services scored a below-average 5.25 in this area, which demonstrated to be the biggest discrepancy between customer expectations and service delivery.
One example of the gap between expectations and delivery was that 59 percent of online users feel that information should only be used for the reason it was provided and a further 39 percent demand that permission be asked prior to any further use of personal data, yet 82 percent of financial services companies routinely reuse personal data for ongoing marketing exercises without explicitly asking for permission, the research group said.
Furthermore, a combined three-fourths of online users feel they would be very uncomfortable with or would reconsider using companies that shared their data with other companies, but 13 percent of financial services providers will share data with unrelated third parties, and 38 percent share and swap information with business partners, according to the announcement.
The research group suggested that 69 percent of financial service providers could optimize their performance if they took more time to inform users on the benefits of cookies and how consumers can disable them at a later point to prevent users who associate cookies with spyware and adware from disabling them.
The top companies for site usability were Wells Fargo, TD Banknorth and Huntington Bank, with Wells scoring highest and above industry average in the area of accessibility or Attitude and TD Banknorth doing so in ease of use or Simplicity.
World Savings and Bank of America were reportedly among the companies that did best in the communication area. World Savings lead the overall industry in responsiveness with a score of 8.8, versus 4.8.
The sites users trusted most with personal information belonged to General Electric, American Express and E-LOAN, which scored above industry in Transparency for clarity and comprehensiveness of privacy policies, the group said.
Overall, the financial services company that best treated online users was E-LOAN, with the high score of 7.9. The direct lender said this is the second year it has topped the ranking.
"Treating the customer with respect and working diligently to earn their trust is job one at E-LOAN because it's what we stand for as a company," E-LOAN President Mark Lefanowicz said in an announcement. "We are honored to have our hard work and commitment continually recognized and rewarded by leading independent researchers year after year."
Wachovia Corp., Wachovia Mortgage Loans and Bank of America tied with the overall third-highest score, and the fifth-highest belonged to Quicken Loans, Freddie Mac, Royal Bank of Canada, and TD Banknorth, the research group reported.