Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications is acquiring TouchCommerce, a digital customer service provider in Agoura Hills, Calif., for $215 million in a cash and stock transaction.

The big picture story of this deal is that TouchCommerce will add complementary functionality — live chat and customer analytics come to mind immediately — to the deep array of voice and language products in Nuance’s Enterprise business line. 

More immediately, the story is this: TouchCommerce is equipping Nuance with a customer service bot enhanced with targeting, routing and analytics capabilities and that is  smart enough to pass a service request on to a human agent when warranted.

See, simultaneously with the acquisition announcement, TouchCommerce separately unveiled this bot, which it is calling TouchAssist.

The bot was developed using Nuance's natural language understanding technology that TouchCommerce licensed last year and TouchCommerce’s own RightTouch platform. 

It is a step up from the chat and automated digital engagement technology in which TouchCommerce made its mark, but then chatbots are rapidly becoming an expected part of the overall customer service tool kit. It is little wonder that both TouchCommerce and Nuance want to get a piece of the action.

Adding the Human to Bot

Where they differ from other chatbot providers is the way they have incorporated human agents into the chatbot’s service mission.

To be sure, TouchAssist is not the first chatbot to add humans to the mix. Last year Facebook introduced its M chatbot, which had actual people assisting with some of the requests. But it was limited to San Francisco and the human involvement was quite clear to users.

TouchAssist is trying to be a lot more discrete about it, or rather seamless. We've all experienced the frustration of entering information into a self-service application only to have to transfer to a live agent -- and enter the information all over again.

With TouchAssist, this handover is far less painful, the companies say. When the virtual agent gets a question it is not certain how to answer, a live agent steps in to continue the conversation. 

"The power of TouchAssist resides in the fact that the agent and robot collaborate, improving knowledge and accuracy over time," said Bernard Louvat, president and CEO of TouchCommerce.

When Sighting Humans Becomes a Defining Moment

Also, having a human drop into the conversation just as it is about to turn frustrating for the customer is definitely a sit-up-and-take-notice moment as sightings of actual humans in the customer service process are becoming more and more rare.

"Human interactions are declining with the rise of digital channels, and will become a rarity and more valuable," said Ed Thompson, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, at the recent Gartner Customer Strategies & Technologies Summit 2016 in London.  

"Therefore, if you can apply human interaction at a defining moment for a customer, it will have a far greater impact."