Days sales outstanding (DSO) is a lesser-known yet key indicator in managing and improving your cash flow. The following is a close-up on how you can improve days sales outstanding, allowing you to implement an efficient and balanced credit risk policy.

What is days sales outstanding?

The days sales outstanding, for a given company, is a measure of the average number of days that it takes a company to collect payment after a sale has been made. If you frequently use trade credit, it is a central indicator for assessing your ability to receive payments on time.

If you’re wondering how to calculate days sales outstanding for a given period, the DSO formula works as follows:

DSO = (accounts receivable / total sales) * number of days

For example, over the month of January, Star Fresh Ltd has sold £50,000 worth of goods, with £35,000 in accounts receivable on its balance sheet at the end of the month. Its DSO is: (35,000 / 50,000) * 31 = 22.3 days. It means that on average in January it took Star Fresh Ltd 22 days to collect payment after a sale had been made.

Days sales outstanding vs. days payable outstanding

The days payable outstanding (DPO) is your mirror indicator: it allows you to see how many days you take on average to pay your invoices

DPO = (accounts payable / cost of goods sold) * number of days

For example, over the year 2023, Star Fresh has spent £280,000 worth of COGS, with £30,000 in accounts payables on its balance sheet at the end of the year. Its DSO is: (30,000 / 280,000) * 365 = 39.1 days. It means that on average in 2023 it took Star Fresh Ltd 39 days to pay its bills and invoices to its creditors (suppliers, vendors, etc.)

A key element of your working capital

The days sales outstanding allows you to assess your ability to convert your trade receivables into cash. These, along with inventories, make up the main element of your working capital.

The higher your days sales outstanding, the greater your working capital, and the lesser your free cash flow.

To that effect, the DSO is a key indicator of the financial health of your company. And if it has deteriorated significantly in recent months, on a global scale, that is no coincidence.

The average global DSO increased by +5 days to 59 in 2022. This fast DSO increase suggests that more companies are, and will be, experiencing delays in receiving payments, which can result in cash-flow problems.

What does days sales outstanding say about your business?

Calculating your days sales outstanding is one thing. Knowing how to interpret it is another.

DSO improvement only makes sense in relation to your business strategy. In theory, a company or a sector that is accustomed to selling on credit will have a higher DSO.

As with working capital, the variation of the DSO from one period to another is what counts, more so than its absolute value.

Example 1: Company A is used to selling on credit on its domestic market – usually around 10 days – but is now expanding to a foreign country, with a large customer that turns out to take longer to pay the invoices – about a month. Company A’s average DSO is going to go up from 10 to 15 days.

Example 2: Company B has a loyal and regular customer base and usually allows a payment term of one month. For several months, its days sales outstanding has stabilised at roughly 30 days.

In this case, it is company A that must be particularly careful, despite a lower DSO: its ability to be paid on time, and therefore its free cash flow, has deteriorated. Company B however is aware of its average DSO and has anticipated it.

Financially speaking, it is always good to lower your days sales outstanding. However, it can be beneficial commercially to offer your clients an attractive trade credit policy, which will mechanically raise your DSO. To get tips on finding the sweet spot between protecting your financial situation and offering attractive terms, have a look at our article on how to negotiate payment terms.

Checking sector and national averages

It is advisable to compare your numbers with companies similar to yours: if your days sales outstanding is well above the average in your industry, let alone in your country, you have a problem!

The sectors with the highest DSOs are transport equipment and machinery, at 77 and 29 days respectively – compared to an overall average of 56 days.

Before expanding to a new market, checking the country's average DSO in your sector is a good way to establish an adequate business strategy.

Average days sales outstanding varies considerably from country to country: from 27 days in Korea (the lowest) to 66 days in Italy (the highest). (Source: Starting to export: Which countries pay quickly?)

If you're in an industry with notoriously slow payment, such as chemicals and pharmaceuticals, late payments for exports may be standard no matter which country you choose.

Set up your own credit control policy

It is up to you to define your business strategy: the objective is to define a target days sales outstanding that is adapted to the reality of your business and your company.

To that effect, you can evaluate the following criteria:

  • The creditworthiness of your clients: How well do you know them? What is their payment history with you or with other suppliers?
  • Recent changes in your working capital: Has it shot up in recent months? Can you afford to reduce your free cash flow? For a more in-depth look at cash flow, check out How to protect your cash flow.

Once your target DSO has been set, the goal is then to stick to it as best you can and review it regularly, especially when you enter work with new customers or a new market.

How to improve your days sales outstanding

There are several ways to improve days sales outstanding:

  • Negotiate better payment terms: Set up shorter payment terms, advance payments, early payment discounts etc.
  • Strengthen your invoicing process: Improving DSO often requires a focus on making sure that invoices are going out on time, contain all necessary information and are free of errors.
  • Better manage accounts receivables: Invest in efficient payment monitoring to remind customers of unpaid invoices, and define a clear recovery process – if necessary through a debt collection agency.

Trade credit insurance remains one of the most efficient solutions to ensure the stability of your days sales outstanding. With trade credit insurance, you are insured in the event that a credit cannot be recovered. As a result, you are guaranteed that a potential bad debt will not have a negative impact on your working capital. Read our article on  how credit insurance helps to secure your cash flow to learn more.

More than lowering your days sales outstanding, it is important that you keep it under control: a rising DSO is a sign that you are no longer in control of your invoicing and debt collection process and that your financial health is deteriorating. It is therefore important to constantly monitor it and work on improving it while maintaining good relations with customers.

For a free credit insurance consultation call our UK team, 09:00-17:00 Mon-Fri.