How to Purchase an Applicant Tracking System

By Dave Zielinski April 12, 2021
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​An applicant tracking system (ATS) is the backbone of recruiting technology, a core platform that collects and stores candidate resumes as well as automates job postings and other manual tasks common to the recruiting function.

ATS technology has undergone considerable change, with providers introducing artificial intelligence capabilities, automated workflow features and reporting tools designed to make the lives of recruiters, hiring managers and job candidates easier. 

But the growing number of platforms makes the choice of a new ATS more vexing than ever. Talent acquisition and human resource leaders comparing this array of systems should consider factors including customization options, the quality of user interfaces, candidate experience, automation features, integration capabilities and the availability of robust reporting tools.

View SHRM's latest guide to applicant tracking systems here.

First Things First: Optimizing Processes and Clarifying Strategy

Experts say the first step in seeking a new ATS should be to evaluate your existing recruiting processes, because even the most sophisticated software can't fix inherently flawed workflows. Kara Yarnot, vice president of strategic consulting services for HireClix, a recruitment marketing agency and talent acquisition consulting firm in Gloucester, Mass., said companies should ensure their recruiting processes align with strategic business objectives and remove redundant or inefficient process steps before seeking a new ATS provider.

"With that optimized process in place, you can then document your system requirements and key use cases and require vendors to clearly articulate how their solution supports your process," Yarnot said.

Elaine Orler, senior vice president of technology consulting for Talent Function, a San Diego-based company owned by global recruitment process outsourcing firm Cielo, said buyers' evaluation of ATS platforms and other technology products should depend on their recruiting maturity levels and evolving needs. Sometimes people need the newest version of the same system; other times they want to optimize or transform how the work gets done.

"For example, you may have an assessment provider now but want one that has a focus on innovation and scalability to integrate with your current technology solutions," Orler said. "Or maybe you want to implement a CRM [customer relationship management] solution along with a new ATS because you've advanced your recruiting function to have talent scouts and advisors, and the recruiting you're doing now is more competitive and you need to be faster than your competition."

Chris Russell, managing director of RecTech Media, a recruiting technology consulting company in Trumbull, Conn., said the best ATS platforms meet the dual objectives of providing recruiters with an intuitive and efficient administrative experience while delivering a friction-free experience to job candidates.

Russell said one key criterion in evaluating ATS providers should be how quickly a technology helps convert job applicants. "Getting candidates quickly to a completed application is critically important to today's recruiting funnel," he said. Internal recruiters should have to navigate as few steps as possible to move candidates from one stage to another in the process.

Recruiters' Pain Point: Reporting Functions

The reporting capabilities in an ATS are often frustrating for recruiters seeking simple, customized reports on the quality of sourcing channels, time-to-hire or candidate drop-out rates. When reporting functions fall short, recruiters have to build their own workaround processes.

Russell suggested making sure your chosen ATS provider can handle all of your current reporting requirements as well as smaller items like how to create new reports inside the ATS. "The latter task has traditionally been challenging for the average recruiter," he said. "It's best to try before you buy. Many vendors let you check out a demo account, but ask around, too, to find other companies using the same technology to get objective opinions on reporting capabilities."

Kristin Fife, principal of Employeeze, a talent acquisition consulting company in Seattle, agrees that ATS reporting functions often pose a challenge to recruiters. "The system should allow you to easily pull customized, simple reports without having to make a request to an HRIS for them," she said.

Ask ATS vendors if you can build your own reports or have to rely on the vendor's customer support team to create certain reports for you, Yarnot said. "If the vendor has to build them, how long does it take to get a report?" she said. "Is it possible to report on custom fields created just for the client?"

Automated Features and Workflows

A modern ATS should have a full complement of automated features, Russell said. "An ATS today needs to be able to remove the burden of small tasks on a recruiter's plate," he said. Such automation has particular value in the areas of candidate sourcing, screening and scheduling interviews.

Automation also should improve and not detract from the candidate experience. For example, the best systems automatically inform candidates as they are moved into different stages of a recruiting process. "You don't want candidates to get lost in a communication black hole," Russell said.

Automated interview scheduling and chatbot functionality are critical components of an improved candidate experience, he said, as is reducing candidate drop-out rates by ensuring job application forms don't have too many fields to complete.

Scalability and Integration Capabilities

Experts also encourage small and medium-sized businesses to assess how a prospective ATS vendor will scale with their potential growth. "Ask vendors to provide client references who have scaled from a similar size to your current size or a size you expect to be in three to five years," Yarnot recommended.

Buyers also should determine how well an ATS will integrate with other technology platforms in a HR ecosystem, she said. "The definitions of integration can vary widely from a flat file that needs to be manually uploaded to standard application programming interfaces [APIs] to a custom API that needs to be developed specifically for your organization," she said.

Supported After the Sale

Russell believes post-sale customer service should be a key differentiator when comparing ATS providers. "I have heard too many stories of ATS providers becoming unresponsive once you sign the deal," he said.

Yarnot recommended requiring that any prospective vendor have the customer support employee who will be assigned to your account at the product demonstration and other key meetings.

"Once the system is live, the sales team often isn't engaged with you any longer," she said. "You want to meet your primary support contact person, which can greatly impact your experience as a customer. Ask all of your questions about support service level agreements and escalation processes directly to this person. That helps you evaluate their communication skills, system knowledge and general approach to customer service."

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business writer and editor in Minneapolis.

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