FleetBoston Financial's

(FBF)

sudden decision late last week to pull the plug on its Robertson Stephens investment bank has left some of the firm's estimated 20,000 wealthy retail customers in the lurch at a bad time.

Fleet is in the process of moving those customer accounts to its Quick & Reilly discount brokerage division, but that transfer won't be completed before Aug. 9. And a Fleet spokesman concedes that the bank has been slow in notifying Robbie Stephens customers of the transition and that some customers may have had difficulty contacting brokers to place buy or sell orders.

"We are making every effort to correct the problems that might be related to the difficulty of reaching brokers," says Fleet spokesman Charles Salmans. "This was something of an extraordinary situation."

The problems, according to customers and brokerage sources, were particularly bad on Monday, when some of the 20 brokers still on the payroll at Robbie Stephens didn't show up for work. Some brokers may have been under the impression that they didn't have jobs to report to, because Fleet had told Robbie Stephens employees last Friday that it was shutting down the investment bank and instructed some not to come to work anymore. Other brokers, source says, already had left for other jobs.

The confusion meant that some customer telephone calls to brokers went unanswered, making it impossible for those customers to make stock trades. That's because Robbie Stephens, unlike Fleet's Quick & Reilly division, has never offered its customers -- most of whom have more than $5 million in assets -- the option of online stock trading.

And Monday, one recalls, was a bad day for an active investor to find that his broker was AWOL. The

Dow Jones Industrials

dropped more than 400 points by early afternoon before staging a remarkable rebound to end just barely lower.

Meanwhile, a message to retail clients posted on the Robbie Stephens

Web site says: "Our primary goal is to ensure our clients experience as smooth a transition as possible over the upcoming day and weeks."

Salmans says that by Tuesday, customer calls were being answered, and that a letter will be soon mailed to Robbie Stephens customers, providing them with information about the transition process. Fleet, he says, will review claims from any Robbie Stephens customers who feel they lost money because of the transition problems.

"We would certainly consider any such claims that a customer made," says Salmans.