How to Select an ATS

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Let me start by saying I’m not a procurement expert. I’m not going to tell you how to conduct a competitive demo shootout, how to negotiate terms, or how to run an RFP process. What I am going to talk about is how to weigh various factors that may affect these processes so that you can make the best possible decisions.

In more than 20 years in the recruitment business, I can tell you that applicant tracking systems (ATS) are like elbows – everyone has one, and everyone says theirs is a bit rougher than they would like.

Here are a few items to consider during your ATS selection process.

Are you more concerned about recruiter and process efficiency, or with tracking and compliance? ATSs tend to fall into those two broad categories. Either they are VERY good at tracking and compliance and reporting OR they are very good, user-friendly systems that help recruiters be more efficient and effective. I have yet to come across a system that does both of these very well. You can tell quickly which category an ATS falls into by looking at the background of the company. Systems that were founded by individuals from a supply chain/ERP background tend to focus more heavily on the reporting and compliance side. On the other hand, systems that were founded by former recruiters tend to focus much more effectively on the recruitment automation and ease-of-use side.

What is your company’s tolerance for trading risk for flexibility? An established, global, enterprise-class system will be fairly inflexible to work with as a partner. Product roadmaps are locked 12-18 months in advance and, as a result, the systems are slow to change, but typically stable, secure, and a safe investment. On the other hand, newer, younger companies tend to use more agile development approaches to be able to respond more quickly to their clients’ unique needs and desires for customization and change.

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Do you prefer best-in-class point solutions, or a plain-vanilla unified system? I was recently consulting with a client executive about a new ATS they are procuring and she wondered aloud why she couldn’t find a single system that met all of her needs – a best-in-class ATS, a strong recruitment marketing platform, robust candidate CRM capabilities, and a thorough reporting and analytics capability. So far, the market has yet to produce a single vendor that can do all of the above in a best-in-class way. Certainly through some recent acquisitions a few companies are getting closer, but no one is there quite yet. This leaves the ATS buyer with a choice: buy a single system that is good (but not great) at all of these areas, or cobble together two to three vendors that are best in each of their categories, but require some work to interact.

What is your ideal balance between cost, service, and quality of product? In my experience you can have low price, high-quality service, or high-quality technology – pick any two. The systems with the best technology tend to either be expensive or have poor service (or both). The systems that have the best service often have holes in their architecture or service offering and so on. Deciding early on which trade-offs you are willing to make in these areas can be very helpful in quickly arriving at a shortlist of potential partners.

Are you buying based on current capabilities, or based on a future development roadmap? In some cases, you need capabilities NOW that you’ll want to ensure are part of a platform. In other cases, you might be 12-18 months away from needing a specific feature in an ATS and can afford to wait. Knowing what your must-have-now list is vs. your must-have-sometime-in-the-foreseeable-future list will help you narrow down your list of vendors.

What sort of experience have similar customers had with implementation and support? One of the most commonly neglected factors considered when evaluating a system is the quality of implementation and support staff. Selecting the ideal system is only the first step – you’ll still need help implementing the system and supporting it over time. I strongly encourage clients to conduct their own references (not those provided by the vendor) with other users of the finalist systems to see if one particular vendor shines in the quality of their support over time.

There is no more a “best ATS” for everyone than there is a “best car” for everyone. Some people like Chevys, some like Cadillacs, and some like Toyotas, Fords, BMWs, and so on. In the same vein there are raving Taleo fans and those who can’t come up with enough four- and thirteen-letter words to describe them. There are those who love SuccessFactors’ integrated platform and those who talk about how good the company used to be before some of the recent changes. The most important thing is to focus less on what others are saying about their system and focus instead on the unique and special needs of your company and your business and find a system that best fits your needs.

One thing I can assure you is that no system is perfect, all take a lot of work to get working just right, but the time you spend selecting one will pay off in spades if you find a system that works well in your environment.

MORE: Leverage cutting-edge talent acquisition technology


Jason Berkowitz

Jason Berkowitz
Jason Berkowitz is vice president of client services at Seven Step RPO.

Jason Berkowitz

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One Response to “How to Select an ATS”

  1. Very well written and Quite aptly concluded. ‘Rather going for the best find out the one that complements your unique needs’. Now its more than just a applicant tracking in ATS, people are willing to stretch and enable Social Recruiting, Analytics, Sourcing, Aggregators and a lot more stuff in demand but yes one has to see his use-case before else end up paying more.

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