Modern businesses collect a tremendous amount of information about their customers. This data includes highly personal details ranging from home addresses to credit card numbers.

Collecting data may be a necessary element of processing payments and conducting marketing. But it's also a tremendous responsibility. When customers share this information, they're trusting your business to keep it safe. If you fail to do so, they'll be more than willing to take their business elsewhere.

For both its customers and its bottom line, every business should take the following steps to protect its customers' privacy.

Don't collect more than you need.

Yes, deep-diving into customer analytics is incredibly useful when developing an effective marketing strategy. But collecting layers upon layers of customer data also means your customers are significantly more at risk should a data breach occur. One of the simplest ways to ensure loads of customer data isn't lost in the event of a breach is to simply not collect loads of data in the first place. Instead, ask only for the data you truly need in order to conduct transactions.

Protect digital data.

These days a vast amount of customer data is collected and stored on the cloud, which means digital security measures are imperative. Take the following steps to enhance digital security:

  • Work with an IT professional to ensure your databases, network, and website are as secure as possible. Include multiple layers of security on your website, as this is typically the first area of attack from cyber criminals.
  • Permanently delete all customer information as soon as you no longer need it for transaction verification.
  • Use a secure connection for online transactions.
  • Encrypt all data that could enable personal identification of your customers.
  • Host all of your data on a dedicated server.
  • Require your customers to utilize strong passwords whenever they create online accounts.

Don't forget the physical side.

Because the bulk of today's transactions are conducted over the cloud, it's easy to focus exclusively on digital security. But it's equally important to invest in security measures on your business' physical premises. Not only do many businesses keep hard copies of customer data, but burglars who steal laptops and other company electronics can access all the digital data you tried so hard to secure. Safeguard your business' physical holdings with the following strategies:

  • Secure all access points for customer data, such as laptops, smartphones, and USB drives. Require employees to password protect their devices and to secure them (perhaps in a safe) before leaving the office every evening.
  • If you store physical files containing customer data, shred these documents as soon as they're no longer necessary for transaction verification. Keep them under lock and key until they're shredded.
  • If you have an on-site server, restrict access to only those employees who absolutely need it and secure it behind locked doors.
  • Secure the physical premises of your building by installing a security system that includes (for example) alarm capabilities, live or recorded cameras, smart lighting, mobile app integration, and so on.

Onboard your team.

In order for your business' security protocols to be effective, your whole team needs to follow them. To that end, make sure everyone on your team understands their role in everyday security protocols, knows how to respond in the event of a data breach, and can identify the security-related roles of other team members. (This way there won't be any confusion over who is responsible for what when it comes to maintaining customers' privacy.) It's also important to train your team to identify possible email phishing scams and other security risks.

The best protection against cyber attacks is a strong defense. Taking steps to secure your business both digitally and physically will pay off in a decreased risk of financial losses and fractured customer relationships. Maintaining loyal customers depends on making their data privacy a daily priority.

Published on: Mar 27, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.