That's the best customers could say about the top-ranked broker in
online broker survey. And plenty didn't do nearly as well.
Why? The young online brokerage business has all the signs of a cocky adolescent with growing pains. The companies are brash, noisy and more than a little boastful. These firms have managed to attract millions of investors and billions of dollars in assets with their promise to rock the old Wall Street establishment. But for all their big talk, they're still kids, and customers want them to grow up.
A few years ago, when online trading was truly in its infancy, customers were more indulgent. Increasingly, however, they are fed up with haphazard order executions, indifferent customer service and failure to deliver on promises, such as providing access to IPOs.
The company that came closest to what consumers say they want is
Datek. The scrappy New Jersey-based firm, which has won the
Online Broker Survey
three times running, wins no prizes for customer service. But it was the overall winner because it scored well when it comes to what readers said are most
essential: fast executions, real-time quotes and speedy confirmation. Datek, which at one time was a supplier of trading "platforms" to the brokerage business, is so confident of its technical prowess, in fact, that it promises to waive commissions on any marketable trades that are not executed within one minute.
There's a lesson in that for other brokers:
"Access problems during busy times basically cancel out any benefits," wrote a survey respondent. "If one of the online brokers would bite the bullet, build out their servers, charge a competitive rate and guarantee access, they would probably capture a majority of the market share. I know I would move."
But while sheer speed helped put Datek over the top among the most popular brokers, it stands tall only among relative Pygmies, as far as
readers are concerned. Its
overall score -- 20.49 of a possible 30 (about a B, class) -- is a sign that the industry has a way to go to make these customers satisfied. From the more than 2,000 written comments that poured in along with 10,000 ballots, it's clear that investors are losing patience. They say they are tired of watching their brokers shovel millions into incessant TV ads while they stare at an hourglass on their computers or wither on hold until the next available rep answers the phone. In short, the customers want the online brokers to build the systems and customer-support operations that are needed to deliver all the services they promise.
Take the experience of
, who works in commercial real estate in Dallas. On a recent morning, he said, he logged on to
with plans to sell
at the open. As he waited and fumed, he used the time to write to
: "My site will not let me enter the order, and I have now been on hold for a broker for an hour. I also wanted to change several stop
orders but my site will not let me. Also, my account balance was off by $6,000 this morning. ... Oh, a customer-service rep just came on and said it would be another 30 minutes to an hour. ... This is my life savings, and I am helpless."
Nix wasn't asking for the moon, just for what an online broker is expected to do: enable you to trade online. (E*Trade did not respond.)
For what it's worth, Mr. Nix, you're in good company.
is the only firm of the 17 that scored above 20, or "good," on reliability, and only four hit that mark in customer service.
Reliability and service, though, are only part of the story. As investors gain experience in online trading, they are getting more demanding. Delayed quotes will no longer do; instant portfolio updating is also de rigeur. Indeed, readers rated real-time quotes the second-most important feature in selecting an online broker, behind reliability.
"I switched to my current broker for commission savings, but their inability to update my portfolio in real-time is pretty lame," wrote one respondent. "As soon as someone else comes along who provides better service for the same (or close) price, I'm gone!"
Brokers need to keep up with the traffic and the times. It doesn't sound like such a high bar, yet no single broker has vaulted it. How come?
Probably because the online brokers are having trouble keeping up with a market that is growing by an estimated 40% annually in terms of accounts, according to Matt Vetto, Internet financial services analyst at
Salomon Smith Barney
Average trades per day among the online brokers increased 52% from the third quarter, to 749,000 in the fourth, according to a Salomon Smith Barney report. There are now 12.2 million online brokerage accounts, the report says, up an estimated 1.5 million, or 14%, from the third quarter of last year.
Given those growth rates, it's no wonder that the brokers' networks are sluggish and their systems are overwhelmed. "They all seem to have grossly underestimated the increase in online trading, and from what I understand they just don't have the capacity," wrote one respondent.
Investors who assume that online brokers will respond by redoubling their efforts to build up their technical infrastructures are likely to be disappointed. Why? Because in the race to snag new customers, brokers are spending more on marketing than on technology. E*Trade began a marketing arms race in September of 1998, when it announced that it would postpone profitability to fund efforts to bring in new accounts. That raised the bar for everyone and pushed Ameritrade, Charles Schwab and others to spend hundreds of millions of dollars last year. Most plan to do so again in 2000.
"It's sort of like a land grab for accounts," says Rich Repetto, who covers the online brokerage industry at
. Noted Salomon's Vetto, technology spending is "currently being dwarfed by the marketing spend."
What about infrastructure, upgrades and service? For the moment at least, the customers keep on coming and staying, says Repetto: "Even with what some would say is subpar customer service, you're still not seeing a lot of churn." .
And, to be fair, it's not that the online brokerages haven't been spending a bundle on technology, too, just less than they might. Ameritrade, for example, made technology a priority last year after been caught out with numerous growth-related problems. Ameritrade hired a technology-oriented chief executive and opened a research and development office in Baltimore and a new customer service center in Fort Worth. E*Trade, which suffered over a year ago from three days of intermittent outages, beefed up their customer service and technology last June with a new center near Atlanta. Charles Schwab, meanwhile, also last June teamed up with IBM to try to make a more scaleable system that would expand with the industry's growth.
Vetto says that despite customer grousing, there are no signs of a backlash: "If the customers are irritated, they're certainly not showing it in their trading volumes or in the number of new account signups." Indeed, online trades accounted for 30% of all
trades in the fourth quarter, according to Salomon Smith Barney.
There is a possible alternate explanation: Maybe customers aren't quitting leaving their brokers because it's just too darned difficult, according to survey respondents. (We'll have a separate story about that in our coverage.)
Eventually, the growth rate of new accounts will taper off and brokers will have to do something more to keep customers. For now, however, the complaints keep mounting.
"We want fast quotes, research, access and confirmation, along with easy-to-understand procedures," says reader
. "Some online brokers seem
like they want to make it as difficult as possible."
Clearly, consumers want more. And, online brokers pay attention, eventually they'll find ways of delivering service and speed as well as reasonable prices, or see their customers gravitate to companies that do. The people have spoken:
As one reader said: "They work for us. Let's let them know! This is great, let's get this out there!"
Over this next week, that's just what we'll do.
Caroline Humer contributed to this story.
Informative provided the technology to conduct this survey.