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Secrets for Choosing the Right Applicant Tracking Software

I asked Joel Passen, an expert in the field of Applicant Tracking Software as a user, a buyer, and now a marketer for a company that develops recruiting software, to write a post for me on choosing an ATS system. Joel Passen is a recruiting industry veteran. Over the years, he’s been recognized and interviewed by the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the San Francisco Business Times and Inc. Magazine. He’s been featured on websites and blogs like, and more. Joel is a blogger interested in emerging issues, trends, and technologies related to the human capital industry. And, as the host of a regular podcast called NED, Joel is connected to the influencers and innovators in the recruiting industry.

Some may be tempted to stop reading here since he must certainly have an agenda. He does. But who doesn’t? That being said, his agenda isn’t a shameless attempt at self-promotion. Instead, he’s simply going to share some insider information to help you think through the process of choosing the right recruiting platform. After all, he knows a bit about applicant tracking software.

Where to start: What to look for. What to avoid.

Like any buying decision these days, start your search on the web. Typing “recruiting software” into Google will give you pages of results and plenty of vendors to choose from. But before you start randomly contacting these companies, you’ll first want to make sure which type of recruiting software you’re looking for. There are two main categories of recruiting software: one for corporations, and one for recruiting agencies and staffing firms. And there’s a significant difference between these two kinds of applications. Focus on the type of application that fits your business needs (most vendors will say they can do both, which is never really the case). So, poke around a vendor’s website for a minute or two before requesting more information from them (and summoning the sales people). ATS salespeople can be as hard to drop as a bad habit. Qualify vendors up front and you’ll be doing everyone a favor.

My second tip is to avoid LinkedIn groups and similar online recruiting forums to identify recruiting software vendor prospects. Unfortunately, professional communities aren’t a very effective place to start looking for ATS recommendations—which may sound a bit counter-intuitive. Well, here’s the deal. Every sales person and marketing jockey has their eyes on those groups and forums (including yours truly). We live in them! The minute you ask the question, “What’s your favorite ATS?” Bang! Your phone and email are going to light up. You can still use social networks to get feedback, but save them for later in the process after you’ve narrowed down your choices. Then you’ll be armed with specific questions like, “Does XYZ offer reliable support?” or “Is ABC reliable?” Real users will be more apt to answer and you’ll get better, less biased information at the most critical stage of your decision making process.

A little advice to make shopping easier

So, let’s say that you’ve looked at some websites, and you have a short list of ATS vendors that look and sound interesting. Now, it’s time to start thinking about what you really need this recruiting platform to do.

My first piece of advice is to really narrow down your “must have” features, the knockouts. Build a list and be prepared for the list to change after you’ve seen what’s out there. Focus on what you must have right now, because as you expand (or shrink) and your recruiting process evolves, your “nice to have’s” are going to change. For example, a year from now you almost certainly aren’t going to need fax integration (I hope you don’t need it right now). This type of feature shouldn’t be a deal killer in your buying decision. And listen to the vendors when they showcase their key features: they might have come up with some really cool things that you hadn’t considered yet. Regardless, choosing any kind of business software is all about managing trade-offs.

My second piece of advice is that you take the time to see your “must have” features in action. Kick some tires. This starts with a demo, but you should also move at least some of your recruiters on to this platform. Take full advantage of the free trial (most vendors should offer this out of the gate). During your trial period, don’t use fake data and don’t just test the system for an hour here and there. Integrate your careers page if possible. The vendor should make this easy. Use their system to manage a job, or 2, or 10. If it fails at managing a small portion of your business, it will certainly fail at managing a large one. Remember, this will be the lynch-pin of your department, your platform; don’t just take the salesperson’s word for it. And, of course, don’t sign any long-term contracts.

While some folks may say all applicant tracking software is essentially the same, don’t be lazy or impulsive when vetting recruiting software. One of the most common mistakes of choosing applicant tracking software is allowing yourself to fall prey to vendor hype or pushy salespeople. If you hear “will you sign the contract by Friday if I do XYZ?”, run the other way fast. If a vendor offers you a deal, it will still be on the table next week (and next month for that matter). After doing the demos, take a step back and ask yourself questions like: “Is this system going to make us more efficient?” and “Will we really use that feature?” The evaluation process can be overwhelming, but don’t lose sight of the bigger picture.

Big picture questions to ask yourself when choosing applicant tracking software:

1. Will I get everyone on board?
No software platform is magic. Some users will love it. Some users won’t. But choosing recruiting software that increases your chances of getting more users to actually use it to make hires will typically result in huge productivity gains and will enable you to improve your hiring process. So, consider everyone that’s going to interface with the ATS when making your selection. Sure, your recruiters are going to use the platform the most and maybe HR wants access to a couple of features, but don’t forget about the crucial users like hiring managers and interviewers. Making it easy to collaborate with them inside your recruiting software is a win for everyone.

As I mentioned already, there are other benefits beyond increasing user productivity. The more users you get, the better off you’ll be as you’ll capture critical information that you can use to diagnose and solve problems / inefficiencies. Solving minor problems before they become major headaches keeps stakeholders happy. And the more data that your recruiting software can gather automatically means less time you spend rounding up information for often dreaded status reports. Choose the right applicant tracking system and make it the hardest working part of your department.

2. Am I buying an aspirin or a stent?

Any professional recruiter will agree with this: it’s time that companies start treating recruiting like other critical business processes in the organization. There’s no better impetus for change than purchasing the right recruiting platform. Too often I hear of buyers being bamboozled by features that sound sexy but, in the end, fail to promote process improvement. For example, most recruiting software systems tout features that focus on getting more applicants. While some of these features may solve an immediate headache (candidate acquisition), they’re not going to prevent you from long-term heartache (broken process). And remember; it’s quality not quantity.

3. Should I get my hammer and saw out, or can we move right in?

The easiest way to tell how hard any software is going to be to use is by how long it takes to get up and running. Every week you spend customizing recruiting software and every hour you spend training users costs valuable resources (valuable time you could have used to fill jobs). Deeply customizable recruiting software is being phased out and replaced by newer, more innovative systems that simply integrate many best practices in hiring into their software’s business logic. This is a trend across the entire business software community too: an increasing number of products with built-in, industry-specific domain knowledge (procurement software, billing software, etc). Ask yourself this, would you rather buy a hammer or a house?

Look for technology that has a smart, flexible work-flow and you can be up and running in a matter of days. You won’t have to spend the next 6 months training users. Many vendors can have your job listings online and all of your resumes imported to the new platform in a day or two.

4. So what’s the damage?

Well, if I haven’t ruffled too many feathers yet, the following will. In my opinion, the way that the majority of applicant tracking systems are priced and sold is convoluted and systematically flawed. Unfortunately, many vendors can’t afford to negotiate much due to, among other things, their antiquated per-seat licensing models. So, I recommend negotiating heavily on other components of their proposals like implementation, support, training and any on-going maintenance. These items should be thrown in for no charge as part of their service.

Complicated pricing also hides the elephant in the closet behind long-term contracts. I’ve heard comments like:

“With our current software every time I want to do something, like add a user or increase our job limit, I’m forced to call someone and pay a fee.” OR “We tried to lower our user limit because we aren’t hiring as much, but they wouldn’t let us. When our term expires we’re going to cancel.”

I hear these complaints almost every day, and with the scars of the recession still visible, these anti-customer business models are being challenged more than ever. Fair pricing is coming, and for some buyers it has arrived. In the end, if you don’t feel good about signing a vendor’s contract, don’t sign it and keep shopping.

On a more positive note, many progressive software companies across all industries (including the human capital segment) are offering “Friction-Free” buying programs to attract and retain customers. These programs are highlighted by simple tiered-pricing models, free trial periods, pay-as-you-go-contracts, and non-punitive cancelation policies. The reduced risks help buyers get purchases approved easily. And this new model for software pricing forces vendors to build better software because they don’t force people into long term contracts: if the software isn’t good, you simply cancel your subscription (and move your data somewhere else).

So there you have it: some honest advice and basic considerations for choosing applicant tracking software. Of course, one blog post can’t come close to capturing all of the nuances of choosing recruiting software. And, I’ll be the first to admit that what’s right for one organization may not be right for another. But, there’s no substitute for getting educated, developing a plan, and dedicating some time for tire kicking. And remember: stay focused on the business objectives that you are trying to accomplish and choose a solution for betterment of the entire company.

Creator and Host,

Carol Schultz

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