Finding the Balance Between Human-Powered Sales and Automation: Lessons in Product-Led Growth (PLG) CRM

Joshua Thorngren, VP of Growth at Torq (Product-Led Growth)

While there is a shift towards evaluating and purchasing software without talking to sales, there is still very much a time and place for human-powered sales.

At Torq this need is more pronounced as the company navigates the complexity of selling a no-code automation platform for security and operations teams. Deals are commonly associated with an assortment of stakeholders managing dozens of tools across the organization, in an industry not known for its simplicity.

Joshua Throngen, VP of Growth at Torq, understands this challenge well, not only from his days as a developer, but from a history of growing cloud security companies and seeing human-powered sales work. As buyer preferences for software evaluation evolve towards automation, however, Josh has had to evolve his growth playbook.

We caught up with Josh to chat about how he combines the art of sales with the science of product usage data at Torq. Josh distills how to make sense of this data to find the right moments for human intervention–from upsell opportunities, to periods of user friction. And when to step back and let an account flourish on its own.


Calixa: Tell us a little bit about Torq and the product itself.

Joshua Thorngren: Torq was founded in 2020. Our product automates and orchestrates response to and management of software incidents. Our buyers care about protecting their colleagues, customers and data, while also delivering a smooth experience to their users.They just want to find a way to deliver those outcomes more effectively - and that’s where our automation comes in.

But we also want to build connective tissue so that the platform provides collective value to whole businesses. We do that through a combination of quick onboarding and ramp-up for individualized use cases, alongside leveraging product analytics and enabling our go-to-market teams. This helps us build a complete picture of an account and spot the opportunities where we can go from just assisting one member of a team to assisting the whole team or the entire business.

If we save one person one hour a week on incident response, that's great. But we can do, and are doing, so much more.

Are there specific metrics you use to identify areas of opportunity for growth?

When you automate a task or a process with Torq, we call that a “workflow” (Shocking, I know). So, in our position, we're asking: Are you building workflows? Are you using workflows from our pre-built templates? Are you connecting workflows to events so that they trigger automatically?

We also look at user trends. Are users inviting their colleagues? Are they connecting other [integrations]? If we're automating tasks or processes, but we’re not connected to anything else in your environment, that's a problem. By the same token, if we're connected to 50 different things, we think, "Hang on a second; so you've connected us everywhere, but what are you actually doing?" That might be a problem, too. For us, it's about some of those workflow metrics, and then it's about integrations and then user activations. But we’re still early stage, so I’d consider this a work in progress.

You start to find patterns. For example, if a user invites three other people, they're more likely to want to hop on a call with a seller and start moving from a self-serve to some kind of enterprise-type plan. You can find connective tissue like that. I think those things vary a lot. Everyone's trying to find three universal signals that tell me I have a deal, but I'm not sure it's that simple.

Are there specific signals you look for to identify opportunities for upsells?

It depends. I think one of the most common signals for SaaS companies is “Do I have 12 different accounts at one company that we serve.” And that’s one for us too — don’t get me wrong.

More often than not, both the customer and we will benefit by consolidating a dozen accounts with a dozen license agreements into a larger enterprise license. But that’s not necessarily an upsell signal by itself. What your upsell signals are will be very correlated with how you’ve chosen to license, price, and limit your product.

For Torq, we look at indicators that a customer’s need has a certain level of complexity. As an example, if a customer connects us to different tools that do very distinct things — that’s an indicator to us that they’re a candidate for expansion, as it’s a good indicator that more than one group in a security team is now leveraging our automation. But this is an indicator because of how we’ve tiered our features — if we made different decisions, it might not be.

Would you say then that upsell signals depend on the business model instead of a single set of signals that apply to all companies?

Yes. I’ve read a lot of thought leadership about SaaS that throws out common upsell signals — user activations, active daily users, actions taken in-app. I’m not saying those signals aren’t signs of increased usage.

But there’s a distinction between “Is this customer increasing usage?” and “Is this customer increasing usage in a way that will result in increased spend?” And that’s when the signals that matter start to be tied to what your business model is. If you’re licensing by user/month — you’re going to be looking for very different signals than if you’re doing consumption-based billing. Your signals have to reflect the licensing model you’ve chosen.

How important is human outreach in activation versus an automated option?

When I’m buying software for my company, I don’t want to speak with a person — I want to try and buy on my own. I think that’s a common view, especially in the cloud and DevOps space. Buyers value being able to self-direct their evaluation. The problem with that is the intersection of people, culture, process, and technology creates a lot of complexity that sometimes you can’t overcome if you’re guiding yourself or not receiving human guidance.

Even the best documentation, onboarding, product tours, etc. — all those things you typically look at to accelerate time-to-value — can’t replace human expertise in complex scenarios. That's when it pays to say, "I notice you’re trying to connect a non-standard tool here. Would it make sense for me to share how we’ve helped [other customer] with that?”

Obviously, this varies a bit depending on what you’re selling. I’m used to the security, DevOps, cloud markets — where you’re selling into environments with dozens if not hundreds of existing tools, coupled with large cross-functional teams and a ton of processes both manual and automated. If you’re selling a marketing platform, I think there’s less complexity, and that lends itself more to fully automated approaches.

So is the trigger for applying the personal touch more about friction?

Yes, when you see that a customer is experiencing friction in your product, that’s the trigger. The ideal is a completely frictionless experience at each stage of the buying journey, but that’s a bit of a pipedream.

So you have to set some triggers that indicate a customer is experiencing friction. This could be user level — maybe a user receives the same error message three times in a row when trying to take an action. It could be customer level — number of average daily logins drop 50% in a week.

You’ve gotta do some trial and error here to find the right signals. Because you don’t want to add friction when someone’s sailing along smoothly. But you want that human touch to appear at the perfect time to smooth over any friction that’s arisen in the self-directed journey.

How do you build a predictable growth engine as the company scales?

Your [growth] team’s universe is what’s in the marketing automation and what’s in the CRM. That’s not going to cut it. As growth becomes more concerned with optimizing revenue across “Land, Expand, Renew” — your team has to be looking at signals from the entire customer lifecycle.

Plugging growth teams into your product data and support/success data makes the biggest difference here — and it’s essential to make the shift toward a more operations-minded growth team.

You have to have your team looking at what’s happening in the product. For example, what new product activations are happening in the account? That signal becomes just as, if not more important, than website visits, email opens, marketing campaign responses. Product usage against license limits becomes just as, if not more, important than pipeline trends.

So, as the team grows, you need people who will take a holistic view of the business and figure out where's best to put your money and resources to achieve the growth you want. If you don’t make growth a cross-GTM function, you’ll end up without a holistic view into your revenue levers for continued success.


Joshua Throngen started his career in SaaS as a developer before co-founding an agency consulting clients in go-to-market technologies. He later joined the leadership team at cloud security company Twistlock (acquired) before joining Torq as its VP of Growth. You can find him on LinkedIn.