In the yearly dual between Dreamforce the technology conference versus Dreamforce the show, this year was more tech. There were still big name presenters from fields outside of technology (e.g. entertainment) with a surprise appearance from Stevie Wonder playing in Marc Benioff’s keynote. But where last year we had Hilary Clinton this year we got Satya Nadella demoing Microsoft technology. The latter saying more about how much Microsoft has changed under Nadella than anything about Salesforce.

As with last year the Developer Zone was perhaps the best area of its kind at any conference that we’ve attended so far. It covered all of the major technology areas including mobile, Internet of Things (IoT), the Salesforce platform (Force.com and Heroku) and this year had a User Experience section to reflect the importance of Lightning (more later).

This year also saw a re-launch of Trailhead, the website launched last year that brings together Salesforce’s developer experience into a single resource. It now includes a gamification element whereby developers can collect badges and 165,000 of these have already been awarded.

The number of announcements this year was small but for us there were three important ones.

Bringing the Thunder: A smart play in the crowded IoT market

If there was a theme to the main reveals it was that they addressed key areas of Salesforce’s offering and customer use cases rather than adding something entirely new. Let’s take the headline announcement of the IoT Cloud and Thunder. The difference between these two is fuzzy, but what was important is that Salesforce produced a service that plays to their USP in the IoT market. It may look like a big new offering and it is new, but in fact it reflects more the ways in which customers have been using Salesforce.

Salesforce has been building out a solid IoT story as customers have realised the importance of customer data held in Salesforce in their own IoT solutions. Many vendors focus on connecting devices to the cloud, collecting data and then running analytics. What’s missing is what organisations do with that insight. There is only value to the business if an action is taken as a result of the insight derived from the data.

For example, Tesla knowing that a car has a problem does very little for them if it cannot take an action to do something about it such as pushing a software update. As many businesses have found bringing their Salesforce data into the equation that decides which action to take makes a lot of good sense. And many of them have already been doing this.

With Thunder, Salesforce has recognised this and created a service specifically to help. Thunder is a decision engine that enables developers to combine data coming from their device ecosystem with data in Salesforce to automatically trigger an action.

At Dreamforce the company used its developing relationship with Microsoft to show how Microsoft is using Thunder to trigger actions with regards to its Office 365 product. One such action is to remind users who have signed-up but not downloaded any of the Office mobile apps, to do so. Interestingly this example has nothing to do with IoT and demonstrates how more broadly Thunder can be used in multiple scenarios.

Thunder is a smart move by Salesforce. It identified how customers are using its platform and tailored a service to help them. It also means that they can get involved in the growing IoT industry without competing against the other big vendors who are more interested in the devices to cloud and big data piece. However, Salesforce does need to articulate its story better as the messaging in San Francisco lacked clarity and many may have missed how good this story is.

Salesforce has not forgotten its small business market roots

Another area that Salesforce has shored up is its SMB business. Salesforce grew through this market to take on the big enterprise vendors such as SAP. However, in its rapid growth the product has, in the eyes of some, become too enterprise for the smaller business market. Others spotted this opportunity leading some to developing SMB focused solutions based on their own platform architecture (e.g. ZoHo), and others moving in using the Salesforce platform but creating a more SMB friendly experience. Salesforce acquired one such company, RelateIQ, last year.

At Dreamforce it announced the results of that acquisition, SaleforceIQ which has two products. One is SalesforceIQ for Small Business which will provide an easy on-ramp for small businesses wanting Salesforce but in a way that is faster and easier to set-up and on-board users. Once again this is a smart move as it helps Salesforce protect itself from the type of rear guard action that it used itself to originally disrupt the CRM market.

The other SalesforceIQ product – SalesforceIQ for Sales Cloud (basically a tool for surfacing sales data) – demonstrates the frustrating face of Salesforce in that while both use the SalesforceIQ name the relationship between them is not clear. Under the surface they share some new relationship intelligence technology for surfacing relevant customer relationship data. While that connection may make sense internally from a Salesforce technology perspective it does not translate into an obvious relationship between the two products from a customer perspective.

Lighting up the Salesforce experience

The third key announcement was that of Salesforce Lightning Experience. Last year the company launched Lightning, a component system for developers building on the Salesforce1 mobile platform. This has now been built out into a Design System which encompasses both mobile and desktop. Salesforce will offer the Lightning look and feel to customers as an option. Curiously for a company that was borne of the internet age, Salesforce has for a long time struggled with its user experience (UX).

I spoke to a number of consulting partners at Dreamforce who said that many of their Salesforce projects either involve or have the sole purpose of improving the default UX that Salesforce provides. This reflects an issue that customers have, which in turn affects adoption and usage of Salesforce based solutions. Lightning demonstrates both a recognition of the problem and an investment in UX that should hopefully solve it.

Salesforce are listening and responding to what customers’ want

Thunder, SalesforceIQ and Lightning Experience show that Salesforce is listening to its customer base and the broader market: as a result, it is making investments in areas that both address its existing customers and should pull in new ones.

While this year’s Dreamforce may not have reached the same heady heights in terms of celebrity attractions as it did last year with the show side aspect of the conference, it did however deliver far better on the technology. That is, after all what’s all the more important for the customer audience.