Questionnaire reveals a nation of form-fillers

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The Independent Online

Britain is a nation of form- fillers. Every year consumers complete 49 million applications, fill out 54 million forms for money-off coupons and respond to 38 million market- research questionnaires.

But according to a report by the Henley Centre, launched during National Consumer Week, few companies then bother to analyse this data properly and risk alienating customers by not explaining why information is collected.

Around 1,500 people were interviewed for the Dataculture report on giving out personal information. The study describes 80 per cent of us as "pragmatists" - concerned about protecting privacy but accepting we must trade information for better service, money off, information or tailored products.

Only 9 per cent are "fundamentalists" - unwilling to surrender personal information for any reason. And at the other extreme a radical 8 per cent "don't care who holds information about them".

Information that people are willing to give out is arranged in a strict hierarchy. Unsurprisingly, the three most private areas are personal income (which only 16 per cent would give out); household income (13 per cent) and personal investments and savings (11 per cent).

However, 9 out of 10 are willing to provide their name and 86 per cent will hand over their post code.

More than three-quarters will also volunteer information on their marital status, television viewing, job and even their age.

Around 67 per cent will reveal their religion while more people are willing to give out their weight (56 per cent) than their work telephone number (30 per cent) or their political allegiance (40 per cent).

But the majority of consumers are not confident that companies will stick to the law on data protection. Under the 1984 Data Protection Act, a company cannot pass on a customer's name without notifying the individual concerned.

More than 70 per cent felt it was inevitable companies would find out things about them and just over a quarter believed most companies abide by the Data Protection Act (most do).

One of the main complaints was list-swapping within companies. Three- quarters of consumers understand that if they tick an opt-out box on questionnaires their names should not be passed on but fewer than a quarter believe such requests are honoured.

Three-quarters of companies hold a customer database with just 7 per cent of utilities and 18 per cent of financial services firms claiming to be without one. Consumer goods and travel firms are least likely to have a customer database.

However, only 13 per cent of the sample had fully integrated their databases and only 7 per cent had a manager in charge of running the facility.

"Few companies in the sample were using databases on a strategic planning level or for customer value analysis or satisfaction surveys," said Melanie Howard, head of marketing studies at the Henley Centre. "This suggests that the potential contribution of database marketing to improving market share and customer retention have not been realised."

The report concludes that companies need to allow customers to have greater control over information - such as telling them what details are held and allowing them to check. "Longer term the fact information is not being used properly is making them suspicious," said Ms Howard.