If you don't have customer trust, you soon won't have customers either.

Why business must heed consumer data sharing concerns

Entrusting personal details to public and private organisations alike is an unavoidable part of being a consumer. For businesses of any size, appropriate handling of that data is a cornerstone of gaining and retaining consumer trust.

Indeed, recent years have been peppered with data sharing and security scandals that have had negative effects on the organisations in question - because, of course, if you don't have customer trust, you soon won't have customers themselves either.

Data sharing - a growing consumer concern

Consumers are not only concerned with receiving quality products and services at a good price. Increasingly, their personal details are at the forefront of their minds when deciding where to buy and which services to use - which means it needs to be a high priority for your business too.

Demonstrating exactly how important this is, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) Annual Track Survey from March this year revealed that 85 per cent of people are concerned about the passing on or selling of their personal information to other companies. Furthermore, 77 per cent of people were worried that businesses wouldn't keep their details secure.

As a result of the research, the UK Information Commissioner Christopher Graham urged businesses to do more to make consumers understand exactly how their personal data will be protected and shared.

"Providing people with enough information to understand how their details will be used is a basic principle of data protection. While the vast majority of companies are meeting the letter of the law, figures released today show that most people remain concerned about how their information is being shared. This situation is not good for consumers, or for businesses," he stated.

Within the next three years, a new data protection framework will be established. Mr Graham suggested that companies aim to prepare for these future regulations, rather than simply meeting current legislation. This will not only leave them in a better position for meeting those regulations, but also give their customers reassurance in the present - something they clearly need.

Vitality - a lesson in transparency

Ensuring your customers understand exactly if and when you will share their personal details, and with who, is crucial in maintaining a good relationship. Even if no negative repercussions occur as a result of data sharing, if the customer feels they were unaware of how their data was to be used, trust is still damaged - and damaged trust is not good news for any business.

Illustrating the point well is a recent case involving health insurer Vitality. Its customers can earn points for getting active; these points can then be used to access free cinema tickets. Whether the right level of activity has been achieved is determined through a variety of trackers, such as pedometers and smartphone apps.

It is the use one of these smartphone apps that caught media attention. Moves is free to download, and so is popular among Vitality customers seeking points. The company came under fire in June this year when it was revealed that Moves is actually owned by Facebook - a fact that industry commentators claimed was not made clear enough to consumers, who it suggested were therefore unwittingly given the social media giant personal data.

Chief executive of Big Brother Watch Renate Samson told the BBC: "It is not at all clear that the app is owned by Facebook and there are no specific details about how the social media company intends to use the data, either now or in the future.

"It is critical that both the app and the insurance company are clear about who has access to their customers data and for what purpose."

However, a spokesperson for Vitality claimed the information was available for customers taking part in the reward programme. This instance goes to show just how important it is that data sharing information is not only available, but absolutely obvious and clear, in order to avoid a feeling of breached trust.

Ashley Madison - a lesson in security

While the ICO research suggested data sharing was a key consumer preoccupation, data security was almost as big a worry. Breaches in the security of personal data regularly hit the headlines, and such incidents have the power to destroy consumer trust in a company.

Of course, a major data breach scandal has hit the headlines in recent weeks, as the data of 37 million users of extramarital dating site Ashley Madison were made public this month. The breach occurred when a group of hackers known as the Impact Team contacted the firm on July 12th to say users' details would be made public if the site was not taken down within one month. It wasn't, and the hackers made good on their promise.

The fallout has been dramatic, with it being claimed that several site members have taken their own lives as a direct result of the breach. Now, the company faces a class action lawsuit.

The dual importance of sharing and security protocols

Clearly, the correct handling of consumer data is paramount to ensure consumer trust and safeguard your company's reputation. This means having clear processes in place to prevent that data being accessed by third parties, and to communicate any necessary data sharing information to your clients.

Seeking specialist advice on document management - including scanning and storage - is an effective way of making sure your client's details stay exactly where they should be. When it comes to data sharing policies, familiarising yourself with the ICO's Data Sharing Code of Practice will not only help you understand what is expected of you as a business and what your responsibilities are, but how best to handle communicating your choices with your customer base.

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