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How to Protect Your Customers (and Your Brand) From Data Breaches Data breaches can strike your business at any time. Knowing how to manage that crisis is essential.

By Adam Petrilli Edited by Kara McIntyre

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

If you run a business these days, chances are good you're handling at least a small amount of customer data. Unfortunately, no matter what security measures you have in place for storing and protecting that sensitive data, the fact that you manage such personally identifiable information puts your business at constant risk (however small) of a data breach.

So as a small business owner, what happens if those addresses, credit card numbers, and other sensitive information do get compromised? What do you do when an unexpected breach of data threatens not only customer safety and well-being but also the brand trust and reputation your business depends on to thrive?

Data breaches can happen to any business. But with the right data leak response strategy, you can take meaningful steps to mitigate the fallout and limit the impact on your customers and your bottom line.

Here are five things your business should bake into its data breach response plan, including steps to help kickstart the recovery process, restore customer confidence and repair your brand reputation.

1. Locate the source of the data breach and assess the damage

Swift action is key to stemming the problem and maximizing your post-breach recovery efforts. Once you suspect your customers' financial data has been leaked, it's crucial to get to the heart of the issue fast and identify just how far the damage has gone. This can't be overstated. The sooner you locate the source and assess the impact, the faster your team can take meaningful measures to stop the bleeding and establish a digital paper trail that demonstrates your commitment to information security.

Safeguards like intrusion detection systems and intrusion prevention systems (IDS and IPS) typically make it much easier to zero in on the source and actions involved in any data breach. These tend to provide an easily-referenced log of which files were affected and what was done during the intrusion. But whether you have IDS/IPS in place or not, taking immediate steps to collect source and damage data is essential to a successful recovery effort.

Related: 8 Ways a Data Breach Could Take Out Your Company Tomorrow

2. Have your IT response team address the issue

Once you've identified the problem and thoroughly assessed the damage, it's time to immediately gather your IT security incident response team to attack the issue. Based on the nature and extent of the breach, your now-mobilized IT personnel can more effectively isolate affected files, shut down and repair hacked systems, and take steps to prevent the situation from needlessly getting worse.

If the resources are there, your data breach response team should include qualified professionals from important operational areas within your company, each equipped to manage different aspects of the incident and its fallout. Ideally, this would consist of leaders from such departments as IT, legal, human resources, and so on.

For smaller businesses that may not have such resources, it's critical to have at least one trusted response professional in place, someone designated to carry out your incident response plan, fix the issue, and help prevent data breaches from getting worse.

Related: Five Ways To Protect Your Company Against Cyber Attacks

3. Inform your customers

With the problem targeted and a solution in progress, it's time to contact any customers potentially affected by the breach. Doing so allows customers to take their own measures to protect personal details and secure financial information exposed by the breach, as well as to avoid falling victim to identity theft. This may include anything from changing passwords and bank account numbers to canceling credit cards, small but important steps that can help prevent costly problems down the road.

Quickly notifying customers of the breach is also critical to maintaining brand trust and credibility, allowing you to break the news while outlining your focus and efforts on delivering a solution. Updating customers fast puts the brand narrative in your hands, giving you the opportunity to avoid unpleasant surprises, demonstrate openness, mitigate customer negativity (before it goes viral), and show you take the problem seriously.

When notifying customers about a major data breach, be sure to do so quickly and provide the honest, thorough, and actionable info they need to protect themselves and their families. Also, be sure to notify everyone affected. Double-check your records to ensure everyone with potentially compromised data is aware of the problem and the steps you're taking to protect them.

4. Audit and adapt your IT security plan

IT security audits are particularly crucial after a data leak, allowing you to assess and address any holes in your cybersecurity and eliminate vulnerabilities that could threaten protected data in the future. Performing a comprehensive security audit right after a massive data breach is key to identifying where and how hackers accessed your system, shoring up those access points, and better preparing for similar or adaptive cyberattacks in the future.

A post-breach audit can also provide a more complete picture of the incident fallout, including information on any leaked confidential data that could be used against your customers down the line. The more information you gather during this process, the more you can do to help customers avoid future attacks and plan for what's ahead.

Related: 50 Things You Need To Know To Optimize Your Company's Approach to Data Privacy and Cybersecurity

5. Manage the damage

Data breaches not only put your customers and their sensitive data at risk. They also put your credibility in the crosshairs, creating a crisis of trust that can erode brand integrity and customer confidence fast. In some cases, even a 'small' data breach can result in unhappy customers, bad reviews, and negative headlines that put an unwanted online spotlight on your business for the long term, far beyond the initial attack.

These days, minimizing the damage to your brand and bottom line can sometimes require a bit more than a coordinated, well-planned data breach response plan, particularly in a chaotic, threat-laden online landscape. When a target data breach occurs and threatens your business reputation, a concerted PR or crisis management approach may be the best way to manage the damage and rebuild your credibility.

Adam Petrilli

Entrepreneur Leadership Network® Contributor

CEO & Founder, NetReputation.com

Adam Petrilli develops and executes winning strategies while inspiring teams to embrace change to promote business excellence. He thrives during challenging situations and in making high-risk decisions with a strategic revenue-focused perspective to generate growth.

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