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Dalbar Inc., Boston, revised its widely watched rating system for ranking financial Web sites in the third quarter of 2003, the better to reflect site visitors interests, says a company spokeswoman.

The change in the rating system caused the scores of life insurance and annuity providers to drop, although many held steady in their place in the rankings of life insurance and annuity companies when compared to the position they held in the second quarter.

Another change that Dalbar introduced in the third quarter was the use of decimals in its scoring system to reduce the number of ties in its rankings.

Fidelity Investments Inc., Boston, retained its lead on Dalbars ranking of consumer-oriented Web sites.

Among sites aimed at financial professionals, Hartford Financial Services Group rose to first place, edging out last quarters leader, Allstate Financial, Northbrook, Ill.

As a result of Dalbars changes, Fidelitys consumer site and Hartfords professional site were the only ones to retain Dalbars “excellent” designation, awarded to sites scoring 80 or better on its 100-point evaluation system.

That was a significant drop from the second quarter, when Dalbar designated 9 consumer sites and 5 professional sites as excellent.

The firm changed its rating system to better reflect users needs, based on its research, says Csilla Von Csiky, the companys managing director.

“We have given more weight to features consumers and financial professionals identified as important to them,” Von Csiky says.

For instance, Dalbar found consumers often go to financial sites to check the performance of their investments, review account balances, access statements and find answers to specific questions.

On the professional side, Dalbar researchers looked at a sites ability to enable producers to review and access clients accounts, fill out forms and paperwork, compare product performance, check interest rates and dividend figures, change client investment allocations, conduct market research and obtain product information, Von Csiky notes.

Dalbar plans even more changes in the first quarter of next year to reflect a sites ability to fit the behavior of both consumers and professionals, she says.

The tougher standards used in the third quarter didnt change relative rankings dramatically, she adds.

“We have upped the ante, and some of the scores are actually lower now. But thats across the board,” she explains.

Fidelity held onto first place among consumer sites, even though its score dipped from 92 to around 88 in the third quarter.

However, Allstate fell to second place among professional sites after its score fell to 75 in the third quarter from 90 in the second quarter.

MetLife Inc., New York, leaped to 10th place among consumer sites, from 21st place in the previous quarter, despite a decline in its score from 71 to about 67.

Dalbar credited the companys site for alerting users to new online features and adding a section that helps consumers build financial strategies based on different life stages.

Lincoln Life moved from 13th to 8th place among consumer sites by adding tax information and other features.

MassMutual jumped from 19th to 13th place by adding a disability insurance calculator and other features.

Among key trends in consumer Web site development was the growth of features appealing to ethnic and other niche markets, Dalbar notes.

For instance, State Farm, Bloomington, Ill., posted information about managing finances, aimed at the Latino market.

Principal Financial Group, Des Moines, Iowa, offered a series of educational items aimed at female business owners visiting its consumer site.

Other companies strengthened their sites by adding various financial calculators, Dalbar says. MetLife offered a tool to help consumers calculate how much income their savings would generate in retirement, while Fidelity added investment analysis and health care cost calculators to help individuals plan for retirement.

Among professional sites, Hartford landed in the top spot despite a decline in score from 88 to around 80. Hartford improved agents ability to access client account information and added other features, Dalbar says.

MainStay Annuities, a unit of New York Life Investment Management L.L.C., Parsippany, N.J., climbed to the 8th spot from 18th by making it easier for financial advisors to gain access to areas they visit most often and by adding more company and industry news.

Manulife Annuities, a unit of Manulife Financial, Toronto, jumped from 37th to 25th by allowing advisors to personalize its site. The site also offers new online illustration tools, Dalbar says.

Other changes added by various companies to their professional sites included improved access to variable product subaccounts and fixed product accounts, an annuity expense analyzer, education material, and marketing and sales support, Dalbar reports.

In the first quarter of 2003, Von Csiky says Dalbar plans to evaluate sites ability to emulate users behavior when they are offline.

For instance, Dalbar will look at how a Web site reflects the way a consumer or financial professional would behave in the real world when performing such activities as opening a new account, transferring funds, asking questions or changing asset allocation.

The extent to which consumers or professionals access a company Web site depends on the companys ability to transfer such offline behaviors to the computer, explains Von Csiky.

“If you are trying to encourage electronic delivery of statements, you have to take into consideration what [the user] is doing with the paper statement,” she says. “If you want to substitute electronic delivery, then the Web site should allow the same things as with hard copy, such as keeping statements for 7 years.”

The idea of emulating a consumers offline behavior is “a fairly new concept,” Von Csiky adds.

“Instead of asking what the customer wants, we are instead asking, what do customers do offline? For e-systems to be successful, they will have to take that into account.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, December 5, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved.Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.