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OnePlus turns to customers to fix its identity crisis

Google's loss is OnePlus' gain as ex-Nexus customers jump ship to OnePlus, but the company still has a lot of work to do.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

For one Saturday last month, OnePlus gave a few of its European customers a unique opportunity: If they had a beef with the company, they could take their complaint straight to the top.

From its original OnePlus One in 2014, the Chinese company has built a reputation for making fantastic, affordable phones with premium parts. But in its early years, it also evoked the wrath of some OnePlus owners over incidents like bungled customer support, an invite-only system for early handsets and an ill-advised promotion aimed at women. 

Some of that ire has subsided as OnePlus continued to build well-received phones, but co-found Carl Pei is determined to keep making things right. On September 30, he met with a group of 20 OnePlus users in London to get their honest feedback about how the company is failing its customers and what it needs to do to fix them.

Now playing: Watch this: OnePlus 5 is the best, cheapest premium phone

Customers (dis)service

I visited the event to hear what the customers had to say. It was held in central London in an event space with blank white walls -- walls that were soon plastered in poster-size pages of notes from all the attendees. Coffee flowed freely, as did the conversation about what OnePlus is doing right and what it's doing wrong. Pei greeted every attendee at the door and played an active role throughout the day.


Carl Pei (centre, orange shirt) with all the attendees of the London meetup.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Pei was open about OnePlus' past issues. "If I had to honestly assess our service, I'd say it's average," he said. "If you have a bad experience with our product, you'll put off your friends and family from buying that product. If you have a good time, you'll become an advocate for that product.

"People don't believe in what the adverts are telling them, but they'll believe what their friend has told them," Pei said.

Complaints that day ranged from delays in deliveries to faulty handsets not being replaced quickly enough to poor quality of accessories to difficulty in even getting in touch with a service representative.

But it isn't just customer service that's been a problem for the company. As OnePlus grew in popularity, it lost touch with the solid community that had built up from day one.

"We were sitting in an ivory tower." Pei said. "We stopped coming out and engaging directly with our users. We've talked about 'Never Settle' [the OnePlus slogan] now nobody even knows what that means anymore."

Attendee Joshua agreed. "After the OnePlus 2, they just closed off and decided not to talk anymore," he said. (The attendees I spoke with declined to give their last names.)

Following the London event, OnePlus published its promises for better customer service, which includes additional repair centres, better troubleshooting apps and insurance options, as well as further customer meetups to discuss ongoing issues. 


Carl Pei addresses the attendees

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Mass market... but generic

While much of the day's conversation focused on customer service issues, the question of OnePlus' identity cropped up again and again.

"If you look at the OnePlus 5, it's very generic and that's a bad thing." says Joshua, "At the end of the day, do you want to be like every other smartphone brand or do you want to stand out from the crowd? They're trying to appeal to more users, but it's at the detriment of losing their true identity."

It was exactly that identity as a welcoming, community-led company that's helped OnePlus pull customers away from Google.

"I've always been a Nexus freak," explained another attendee, Jessica. "But Google have gone mainstream with the Pixel. At first I was really excited and then I saw what it actually was -- shiny and nice, but so expensive. And that's not what I want. I got the OnePlus 5."

Attendee Tom feels the same way: "The reason I was originally interested was because OnePlus filled the hole that Google had left with the Nexus devices -- being developer friendly and very customisable and so forth." Tom also uses the latest OnePlus 5. "I don't like Samsung at all, I think they have no taste," he said

A more open OnePlus

Pei hopes that meeting face-to-face with customers at events like this will help him learn which areas of service need addressing most and show also customers that the spirit of OnePlus is still there.

The company still has challenges ahead. Just last week, OnePlus came under scrutiny for collecting customer data including phone numbers and handset IMEI numbers. Pei himself addressed the matter in a blog post on Friday. "The reason we collect some device information is to better provide after-sales support. We'd like to emphasize that at no point have we shared this information with outside parties," he wrote.

For Tom, the open interaction of OnePlus in its earlier days was a big draw. "They had transparency with the users, they interacted with them on forums, they were accepting of developers and modders," he said. "They were very much about making a device fit to the users, rather than making the user fit to the device.

"If they actually listen to us properly and decide to make changes -- even small changes -- would make a huge difference, and I'd feel more like they are listening to us," Tom said.

Jessica agreed. "If they keep learning and progressing the way they have, I'll be very interested in the OnePlus 6 whenever that's unveiled," she said. "As long as they don't sell out! And that's what a lot of companies do."

First published Oct. 17, 2017, 5 a.m. PT.
Update, 10:45 a.m. PT: Adds background on OnePlus data collection.

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