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Spend & Save

James Daley: Why can't they treat us with respect?

Two tales of bad practice in two different industries came across my desk this week – one which affected me, and one which affected thousands. By far the worse is the story of Prudential's Health Insurance plan, which shook up the UK market four years ago by becoming the first policy to reward customers for staying healthy.

While customers could theoretically reduce their premiums by doing healthy things such as taking cholesterol tests or stopping smoking, the biggest draw of the PruHealth plan was that your gym membership would be free if you attended more than twice a week – making the policy highly attractive for fitness fanatics in the market for private health cover.

Prudential, of course, was quick to realise that this was a great selling point. Until as recently as six weeks ago, the company was running adverts under the slogan "Why pay for the gym?" – a straightforward campaign that, unsurprisingly, proved very successful.

This month, however, the Pru had a change of heart, and began writing to customers to say that from November the plan will no longer pay for most people's gym membership – effectively admitting to many new customers that they had signed up under false pretences.

It's still technically possible to get this year's gym membership for free if you earn enough "vitality points" – but this would be something of a false economy anyway, seeing as you'd have to spend hundreds of pounds on health screenings and the like to build yourself up to the necessary level.

Sadly, PruHealth now looks much the same as any other middle-of-the-road financial services product, offering a few discounts for members who use certain "partner services", but not offering nearly as good value as it once did. If you're planning to cut the best bits out of a product, it's shoddy to spend the previous six months promoting these very benefits, and then hope that apathy will help you hang on to most of your customers once the dust has settled.

The other medal for bad practice this week goes to Virgin Media, which has taken to adding the odd channel to its basic TV packages, only to remove them a few weeks later once customers are hooked on a show.

This is a matter closer to my own heart, as I have spent the last two weeks getting excited about the final season of The Wire (one of the best TV shows ever made, I might add), which is aired on FX in the UK. I've never been fully aware of what channels were and weren't included on my TV package – but when I turn on the menu, it helps me by highlighting the ones that are available.

So, a couple of months ago, when FX suddenly started to work, I assumed that Virgin had decided to add it to the range of channels on its basic package. There was no warning, no customer notice letting me know that this was only a temporary fixture. But five or six weeks later, after I'd got hooked on one of its shows, it was gone again.

When I put in a call to enquire what was going on, I was told that FX has been added for a few weeks so that I could "see what I was missing by not signing up to a bigger package". And how much would that be? "Another £22 a month, sir." Given that I only pay around £30 a month, it hardly seemed worth paying an extra 75 per cent to watch one programme a week.

It's all entirely legal, of course, just as it is for Prudential to advertise a benefit and then withdraw it a few weeks later. It just leaves a rather bitter taste in the mouth, and makes it highly unlikely that their customers will ever recommend them to anyone else.