Sales Secret: The Best Time to Close


Lunch TimeWant to close a sale? When choosing a time to meet with your customer, don’t just take the first appointment time offered to you. A recent study looked at decisions by judges, and revealed startling differences in outcomes at different times of day. Researchers at Columbia University and Ben Gurion University examined the decisions made by judges reviewing parole requests and plotted the rulings by time of day:

We record the judges’ two daily food breaks, which result in segmenting the deliberations of the day into three distinct “decision sessions.” We find that the percentage of favorable rulings drops gradually from ?65% to nearly zero within each decision session and returns abruptly to ?65% after a break. Our findings suggest that judicial rulings can be swayed by extraneous variables that should have no bearing on legal decisions. [Emphasis added. From PNAS – Extraneous factors in judicial decisions.]

The researchers attribute the dramatic drop in favorable decisions to mental fatigue. It’s easier for a tired brain to deny parole than make the more difficult decision to release a convicted criminal into society.

The “Lunch Effect” on Sales

Criminals, obviously, need to be clock-watchers… But what does this have to do with closing a sale? Plenty. One of the researchers, Jonathan Levav of Columbia University, is quoted in Nature: “The work shows the consequences of mental fatigue on really important decisions even among excellent decision-makers… [This could] happen anywhere where there is sequential decision-making and some kind of status quo or default that allows people to simplify those decisions.” Levav’s point is that any decision-making process can be affected in the same way, even by people who are serious, experienced, and focused. If judges are swayed this easily, it’s not hard to imagine a similar, if not greater, impact on purchasing agents, managers, individual consumers, and others.

A Time to Close

When Your Product is the Status Quo. While your first reaction might be to avoid setting meetings right before lunch or at the end of the day, the findings suggest a more nuanced approach. If the customer is currently using your product and isn’t experiencing some kind of crisis, those “bad” times of day may actually be the best times to renew a contract or get a commitment for more product. Because your product is the status quo, it’s an easier decision to make. Changing to another vendor or product always entails some effort and risk, so the odds of a favorable decision actually increase at these times.

When You Are Pushing for Change. On the other hand, if your product represents a change for the customer, do your best to avoid those low-energy time slots. It will be too easy for the customer to say “no,” and that will indeed be the inclination. If you get booked just before lunch, try to extend the appointment to include taking the customer to lunch. Spend the time before lunch schmoozing (see It Really DOES Pay to Schmooze) and conveying simple information, but don’t attempt to close the sale or overwhelm the customer’s tired brain with complex details. After lunch, the customer’s energy will be restored and the probability of success will increase.

Offer a Treat? One thing the researchers couldn’t evaluate in the judicial setting was giving the judge some kind of quick energy boost, like a glass of juice or a candy bar. It would have been interesting to see if that offset the energy deficit. Most sales settings are much more relaxed, so if you are booked into to a time slot long after your customer’s last meal, consider bringing along a sweet treat. As I described in Sugar as Brain Food and What Your Dog Can Teach You About Customers, restoring blood glucose levels can quickly combat mental fatigue.

While the marketing insights from this research are significant, I admit I do find it scary that sober, rational judges exhibit such a dramatic change – from 65% favorable decisions to nearly zero – depending on time of day. If you are unlucky enough to be scheduled for a court hearing, keep the timing in mind!

  1. Jennifer (Verilliance) says

    Interesting but it seems a big leap on Levav’s part. Mental fatigue has been shown to affect decision making, and a lot of what is speculated here makes sense. But what springs immediately to mind is that aside from mental fatigue, that judges may also experience another kind of fatigue or frustration as the parade of criminals marches relentlessly in front of his/her bench. It’s got to be related to mental fatigue, but there’s a very specific context here of dealing with people who’ve done bad things.

    Anyway, my two cents.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Good point, Jennifer. This finding seems consistent with other forms of choice fatigue, in which tired brains look for the easiest way to make a decision, although somehow I expected judges to resist such problems better than low-stakes deciders.


  2. Chris Johnson says

    So fascinating.

    I wonder what impact booze has then – liquoring up a customer doesn’t seem like a sensible decision.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I’m sure an inebriated customer might be more pliable, Chris, but I don’t think that I’d try to close a deal while the customer was impaired! Sharing a few drinks might be a good way to build a personal relationship, though.


  3. Chris Johnson says


    I’m not gonna suggest that we liquor a customer up and close a deal. I’m just curious like an academic about the net impact.


  4. “I’m not gonna suggest that we liquor a customer up and close a deal. I’m just curious like an academic about the net impact.” – I totally agree Chris. I too would like to know.

    Any thoughts Roger?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      I don’t doubt that a tipsy customer could be more pliable and in many cases more likely to commit to a deal. Alcohol can reduce impulse control. But the ultimate effect on the relationship when the customer sobered up could be damaging.


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