What is Days Sales Outstanding (DSO): Definition, Formula, and Best Practices

7 min

"Days Sales Outstanding" (DSO) is a financial metric that indicates the average number of days it takes a company to collect payment after making a sale. 

To understand DSO, imagine a busy café where customers come in and order their coffee. Instead of paying right away, they add it to a tab and promise to pay later. The café, much like a business, needs the money from sales to pay for its supplies (like coffee beans and milk), staff, and other expenses. If customers take too long to pay, the café might not have enough cash on hand to restock supplies or pay its employees, even though on the surface business is booming.

In this metaphor, the time it takes for customers to pay their tabs is akin to DSO for a business. A lower DSO means customers are paying their bills relatively quickly, which is like café customers paying right after they finish their coffee. This is ideal because the business gets the cash it needs to keep running smoothly without interruption. On the other hand, a higher DSO means it's taking longer for customers to pay, which can be problematic, like café customers taking weeks or months to settle their tabs.

What is DSO? Understanding Days Sales Outstanding 

Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) is a crucial financial metric for accounts receivable that tells us how long, on average, it takes a company to collect payments from its sales on credit. Think of it as a timer that starts when a customer buys something and stops when they pay.  If the timer ticks quickly, it means the company is efficiently collecting customer payments; but if the timer lags, it's a red flag that can signal oncoming cash issues.

By keeping a close eye on DSO, businesses can identify important trends, pinpoint issues in their credit policies or collection processes, and take corrective actions. For example, if your DSO is rising, it might signal that customers are taking longer to pay due to dissatisfaction with the product or service, financial difficulties, or too lenient credit terms. Addressing these issues promptly will help your businesses avoid cash flow crunches, ensuring you have the funds you need to thrive and grow.

DSO vs. DPO: What’s the Difference?

As we’ve covered above, Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) reflects the average time it takes to get paid after making a sale. On the flip side, Days Payable Outstanding (DPO) is the average time a company holds onto its cash before settling its own outstanding bills to vendors. In short, DSO is about money coming in, while DPO is about money going out. 

While DSO focuses on speeding up cash inflow, DPO aims at delaying outflows to optimize working capital. Together, these two metrics reflect how efficiently a company manages its receivables and payables, or overall cash flow. 

The Critical Role of DSO in Business Finance

Properly managing DSO helps your business ensure it has enough cash for day-to-day operations and future growth, marking a well-run company. When you have a shorter DSO, you are able to quickly meet immediate financial obligations like paying salaries, purchasing inventory, and covering operating expenses. 

Having cash on hand also enables you to take advantage of early payment discounts from suppliers and reduces the need for external financing, which can come with high-interest costs.

Decoding the DSO Formula

The standard formula to calculate Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) is fairly straightforward:

DSO = (Average Accounts Receivable / Total Credit Sales) * Number of Days

Here's what each component means:

  • Average Accounts Receivable: This is the amount of money your customers owe you for goods or services delivered. The average is typically taken over a specific period, like a month or a year, to smooth out fluctuations and provide a more consistent measure.
  • Total Credit Sales: This refers to the total sales made on credit during the same period used for the average accounts receivable. It's important to use only credit sales because cash sales don't contribute to accounts receivable—because cash is received at the time of the sale and DSO refers to sales where the customer didn’t immediately pay.
  • Number of Days: This is the number of days in the period you’re calculating. For example, if you are calculating DSO for a year, this would be 365 days (or 366 for a leap year). For a month, it would depend on the specific month, ranging from 28 to 31 days.

Use this formula to tell you how many days' worth of credit sales is tied up in accounts receivable at any given time. A higher DSO means it's taking longer to collect on sales, tying up cash that could be used for other business activities. Conversely, a lower DSO indicates quicker collections and better cash flow efficiency.

How to Calculate DSO? A Step-by-Step Guide

Next, let's walk through an example of how to calculate DSO.

If a company has an average accounts receivable of $50,000, total credit sales of $600,000 in a year, the DSO would be calculated as follows:

DSO = (50,000 / 600,000) * 365 ≈ 1/12 * 365 ≈ 30.4 days

This result means that on average, it takes the company about 30 days to collect payment after a sale is made on credit. 

Benchmarking DSO: What's a Good DSO for My Industry?

Based on data from the Hackett Group 2022 Working Capital Scorecard , the overall average DSO in 2021 was 40.6 days, but the median for the 1,000 companies analyzed was higher at 48.7 days. That said, take this data with a grain of salt since DSO varies widely across (and even within) industries. 

While some companies have payment terms of 30 days, others offer more and others offer less. This greatly affects DSO. 

The industries with the highest Days Sales Outstanding (DSO) were Engineering & Construction and Energy Services & Equipment, with DSOs of 100 and 82 days, respectively. 

On the lower end, Food & Staples Retail and Homebuilding showed the lowest DSOs at 11 and 6 days, indicating a quicker turnover in collecting receivables. 

High or Low? How to Find Your Perfect DSO

Finding the right DSO is all about balance. You should strive for a balanced DSO that supports cash flow without sacrificing customer satisfaction.

As we’ve mentioned above, it's ideal to keep DSO low to bolster financial stability and agility. However, too low a DSO may drive away customers if they feel that your credit terms are too strict. 

On the flip side, a high DSO can signal easy credit terms and possibly increase sales – at the risk of tying up valuable cash in outstanding receivables, which could strain your team’s finances. 

5 Proven Strategies to Improve Your DSO

Here is a list of 5 tactics to shorten your Days Sales Outstanding: 

  1. Streamline Invoicing: Implement fast, accurate invoicing systems to reduce delays from the start.
  2. Communicate Clearly with Customers: Maintain open dialogue about payment expectations and issues.
  3. Offer Multiple Payment Options: Offer various methods to make it easier for customers to pay quickly.
  4. Regularly Review Credit Policy: Adjust credit terms based on customer payment behavior and risk.
  5. Automate Payment Reminders: Use software to send timely payment reminders and follow-ups, reducing oversight.

Common Pitfalls in Calculating DSO

Common mistakes in calculating DSO include not adjusting for seasonal sales variations, using inconsistent time frames, and overlooking changes in sales patterns. To avoid these, make sure to normalize data for seasonality, maintain consistent periods in your calculations, and account for sales fluctuations

Navigating DSO Challenges: Expert Insights

Businesses often struggle with maintaining consistent cash flow due to high DSO, arising from inefficient invoicing, poor communication with customers, and inadequate credit management. 

The best ways to minimize these issues is to: adopt a proactive approach in invoicing, establish clear payment terms, maintain regular communication, and implement stringent credit policies. 

Additionally, leveraging technology for automated reminders and real-time tracking can significantly reduce DSO, improving overall financial health. Accounts Receivable automation assists in all of these areas, making receivables management easier and faster than ever. 

The Importance of DSO Tracking: Beyond the Numbers

Actively monitoring DSO not only tracks cash flow efficiency but also signals when it's time to enhance credit policies or collection methods. Keeping DSO aligned with industry standards ensures a company can cover its immediate needs, seize growth opportunities, and maintain leverage in financial negotiations. 

By diligently managing your DSO, you can make more informed decisions on budgeting, capital investments, and setting credit terms, thereby fostering a more secure and forward-thinking environment.

DSO and Other Crucial Financial Metrics

In addition to DSO, there are several other metrics that provide a rounded view of your collections and cash management efforts. These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Days Payable Outstanding (DPO): Measures the average time it takes your company to pay its own bills, impacting cash flow.
  • Days Inventory Outstanding (DIO): Gauges how quickly your firm turns its inventory into sales, affecting cash reserves.
  • Aging Schedule: Breaks down your receivables by how old they are.
  • Collection Effectiveness Index (CEI): Measures the quality of your team’s collections performance over a given period.
  • Current Ratio: Assesses your company's ability to pay short-term obligations, relevant for immediate cash flow status.

Tracking these metrics can provide businesses with a comprehensive understanding of their financial health and effectiveness of their collections strategy.

Understanding DSO Limitations: A Balanced Perspective

DSO, while useful, isn't perfect. It's vital to view DSO in context, considering industry benchmarks and trends over time rather than relying on it solely. 

Combining DSO with other financial metrics offers a more comprehensive financial health picture, avoiding skewed interpretations due to its limitations.

Leveraging Technology: Reducing DSO with Centime's AR Automation

Centime’s AR automation helps your team get paid faster and lowers your DSO by prioritizing invoices, forecasting cash inflows using AI, and streamlining collections. 

Our system also enhances the overall customer payment experience, leading to fewer overdue invoices, and provides a secure portal for payments, reducing fraud risk. These features together accelerate revenue, streamline collections, and provide key performance insights for your team. 


Understanding and managing "Days Sales Outstanding" (DSO) is crucial for financial success. A low DSO means quicker payment collections, ensuring a steady cash flow, essential for operational stability and growth opportunities. Conversely, a high DSO might indicate inefficiencies in collections, potentially straining cash reserves. 

Your team should aim for a DSO that aligns with your industry standards and supports your cash flow needs without compromising customer relations. Remember, effective DSO management is a balance of enhancing liquidity and financial health, and should be part of a broader strategic financial plan.

If your team is looking to shorten your DSO and get paid faster, AR automation may be able to help. Try out our AR Automation ROI Calculator to see how much money your team can save by automating your receivables management. 

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