Automating customer service has been a goal for businesses for decades. It makes good financial sense -- every employee is a recurring expense on the books, so a digital solution that provides customers with the assistance they need and doesn't require human intervention will theoretically (over time) save a company money.

Thus far, however, the systems that have come to market have largely been lacking. Sometimes, they don't "understand," while in other cases, they're just not sophisticated enough to give callers the answers they're looking for. A company may purchase such a system with the best of intentions, but too often, instead of streamlined customer service, what they produce are customers who get progressively angrier while yelling "Representative!" into their phones.

All of the four major U.S. wireless carriers have used (and continue to use) some level of automation to respond to customers. Such systems are fine if you're looking to hear how much you owe or do something simple. They can be frustrating, however, if your situation is even slightly more complex.

But Sprint (NYSE:S) is upping its game with a new offering for its business customers. The No. 4 wireless carrier just launched Sprint Smart Messaging, which it describes as "a solution to help businesses communicate with their customers through an Artificial Intelligence (AI) text messaging system."

Robots work at desk.

Sprint is offering an AI-based customer service solution for business customers. Image source: Getty Images.

Easy answers?

The Sprint system uses AI technology from NumberAI to learn all about the client's business; once it's online, customers can text it  questions such as what hours the business is open, or whether a certain item is in stock and (in theory) the AI will instantly provide the correct answer. But the telecom asserts that Sprint Smart Messaging can also deal with more complicated interactions, such as scheduling appointments or taking delivery orders.

Ideally, by handling more of those relatively straightforward customer-service tasks, the AI will free up staff for the more complex problems.

"Voice is an inefficient way to communicate with customers. We are moving toward a 'WeChat' like world where consumers and business interact and conduct commerce over messaging," said Number AI CEO Tasso Roumeliotis in a press release.

One of the most important features Sprint Smart Messaging offers is what the telecom refers to as "Call Rescue." If a customer phones the business and their call doesn't get answered, the AI texts them back.

"Statistics show that 62% of calls to small business are left unanswered," the company noted in the press release. "Sprint Smart Messaging automatically texts the customer back, reengaging them and increasing their interest. With Sprint Smart Messaging, 50% of customers whose call didn't go through are saved from going to a competitor."

What could possibly go wrong?

In theory, this type of solution should help businesses engage more effectively with their customers. "Our business customers can run their operations more efficiently by responding to messaging requests in parallel and in real-time," said Sprint Vice President Sasha Gorman in a press release.

The challenge is that while AI and automation can increase convenience, they can also send people into a spiral of dissatisfaction. If the AI too often fails to give customers what they want, Sprint will merely have put a new spin on an old method for frustrating customers.

Offering this new tool could help Sprint strengthen its relationship with business customers. That's wise: In a market where changing service providers is fairly easy, proprietary offerings that tie customers to a carrier are valuable.

The challenge isn't really for Sprint, but for the businesses that use the Smart Messaging service. They need to start from the recognition that AI -- even well-trained, cutting-edge AI -- can't always offer the level of service a human does. It may enhance a businesses' customer service by handling the basics fast, but if a company wants to really keep folks happy, it needs to make it easy to opt out of automation and into human interaction.