How to Select a New Applicant Tracking System (with Elaine Davidson)


Picking the best applicant tracking system (ATS) software is a big decision for your business so we asked ATS Integration expert Elaine Davidson to weigh in. Elaine has been a recruiting/talent acquisition leader at Blackrock, Pwc (PricewaterhouseCoopers) and Capco. More recently, Elaine launched Beacon Lane Consulting, a trusted advisor to CHROs, CEOs and Talent Acquisition leaders. Elaine Davidson Applicant Tracking System Expert - Ongig  

What is an ATS?

Elaine: ATS stands for Applicant Tracking System and it is a tool used to manage an organization’s end-to-end recruiting process. When used properly, an ATS provides transparency into recruiting metrics that help the organization make strategic decisions for workforce planning. An ATS can also help provide insight on where to invest recruiting budget and track the performance of recruiters.

Why is selecting the "right" Applicant Tracking System such an important decision?

Elaine: Selecting the right applicant tracking system is critical and varies from company to company. While all ATS software have the same objective (to organize, support, and track the recruitment process), there are subtle differences across the variety of applicant tracking systems on the market today.

If an organization picks an ATS that doesn’t meet their specific needs, they run a high risk of low adoption of the solution. Applicant Tracking Systems are a high dollar investment and the contract length is typically 2-3 years, so choosing the right ATS for your specific recruiting and talent acquisition process is extremely important.

How much does an Applicant Tracking System cost (typically)?

There are always slight variations in how ATS companies price their product.  Beacon Lane Consulting has never worked on an implementation that was under $60,000 annually, not to say it doesn’t exist, just that a majority of clients invest much more on an annual basis; the larger the company, the larger the investment. I have seen low six-figure investments to multiple six-figure investments, on an annual basis.

As mentioned earlier, most contracts will be for 2-3 years, always with some incentive to sign on for the longer term. For some companies, this equates to a 7-figure investment over the life of the contract, only to be repeated again (regardless of whether they stay with their existing ATS partner or make a switch).

It’s important to note that there are also lower cost and free applicant tracking systems to choose from too.  Like everything else, it’s a trade-off. The real question is to figure out what your organization truly needs from an ATS. You may not want or need anything other than some basic functionality, which will certainly drive the price down.

There are some great applicant tracking systems for small companies as well.  Beacon Lane's experience tends to be with mid-large organizations with complex and/or high volume recruiting goals, so we tend to see higher dollar ATS investments.

Finally, the most important thing to remember is that if the solution doesn’t work for your team, it will not be adopted.  Whether you are spending $20,000 or $200,000, the solution needs to make sense for your business. Do a lot of work upfront on process design and business requirements so that your ATS provider builds you the right tool so you are able to fully optimize your investment.

Where do you start in terms of which Applicant Tracking Systems to consider?

Elaine: This is a great and important question. Often times, Beacon Lane is brought in after the client has selected an ATS. At that point, we have to work with the ATS selection that was made. The problem is that the decision makers often do not have the breadth of knowledge about what different ATS systems do and how to evaluate and select the right one for their organization - as opposed to what is trending at the moment.

Who should typically drive the selection of an Applicant Tracking System? The CHRO? The Head of Talent Acquisition?

Elaine: Selecting an ATS is definitely a team effort. The CHRO and/or Head of Talent Acquisition must act as the Executive Sponsor and help drive key decisions. It is equally important to include select members of the Recruiting team - the people who will be daily users of the ATS software - in the testing and selection phases of the recruiting process. This group should include several Recruiters, at least one Recruiting Coordinator, and representation from Recruiting Operations.

As the implementation moves closer to reality, this group will act as change agents, helping to educate other stakeholders and drive a successful launch of the ATS.

What are the basic steps you recommend for the process of selecting an Applicant Tracking System?

Elaine: When embarking on the search for an ATS, it is important to first do an internal “discovery” session that focuses primarily on the recruiting process. The biggest mistake companies make is focusing on the technology before fully understanding what they need the technology to do. The result?

They end up purchasing an ATS system that fits the process as it is today when in reality, the process can be further optimized.

"The ATS should be built to support that future optimized, company-specific vision. This is quite possibly the most critical step in selecting and implementing an applicant tracking system, with change management being a close second."

This is the best time to leverage the expertise of an independent 3rd party that specializes in the selection and implementation of HR technology.

Once you understand what it is you’re trying to support with your ATS (beyond the obvious, tracking of candidates), it makes the ATS selection process much easier because the decision is based on documented workflow and data.

When starting the ATS selection process, you will want to look at it from 2 angles:

  1. What problem are you trying to solve (current pain points)?
  2. What does your process and recruiting function look like in their optimal state?

Once these questions are answered in detail and mapped out, you then can start looking at the different applicant tracking system options in the market; asking very targeted, specific questions.

It can be extremely overwhelming when you realize how many ATS solutions are out there. While they all have the same end goal, there are many variations in how ATS software is designed, how it looks and feels to the user, and the types of companies and/or industries that each ATS serves best.

If you are not partnering with a 3rd party consulting firm, you need to do a lot of research because different companies have different needs and a solution that works well for one company, doesn’t mean it is best for yours.

What criteria do you use to determine the best Applicant Tracking System for your clients?

Elaine: The thing to remember with any ATS is that the devil is in the details. This is why it is so critical to map out your process and then ask very specific questions about the ATS’ ability to support what you need it to do.

Here are some common questions to ask yourself when choosing an applicant tracking system includes:

  1. What does your ideal recruiting and talent process look like? -- This requires clarity into current process and documentation of the gaps, including workforce planning, requisition creation, sourcing, interviewing, offer approvals, negotiations, and onboarding.
  2. What ATS integrations do you think you need? -- Background check, job boards, mass texting capability, assessments, employer branding, job descriptions, etc.
  3. How many unique workflows do you need, how configurable is the workflow inside the system, and how many workflows can the system support?
  4. Is there a need for a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool?  If not, why? -- Note that the ATS is only going to help once an individual becomes a candidate.  By implementing a CRM - and using it daily - you are able to build and engage with a pipeline of talent.  I always encourage clients to at least consider the possibility of implementing a CRM.
  5. How much of the onboarding process can be managed inside the system?
  6. What is the reporting functionality?
  7. How mobile-friendly is the solution - for both candidates and Hiring Managers?
  8. How is the ATS branded?
  9. Where do job descriptions reside?
  10. How does your solution enhance the candidate experience?
  11. What data are you gathering throughout the process that could auto feed into other components of the on-boarding and ats integration process?
  12. How do you report recruiting activity to your executive stakeholder group? -- The solution should help facilitate the ability to tell the recruiting story in a meaningful way.

Should you rely on an Applicant Tracking System for generating your job descriptions?

Elaine: Your ATS is designed to support the recruiting process, and it’s only as good as the data it receives. Job Descriptions are not just an agenda item. In other words, simply writing a job description and attaching it to a job requisition isn’t going to yield the best candidates for your organization, especially in today’s war for talent.

Both active and passive candidates are looking for an experience. You have a few seconds to capture their interest, so a long, generic all-text job description is not going to work.

I recently showed a CHRO two scenarios - one was a traditional job description with a lot of text, all black font, and a bullet list of job responsibilities, qualifications, etc.  Then we flipped to a page that within 20 seconds had him say - “I want ours to look like that”.  Here is what he saw:

Job openings organized by city as well as by function, help to minimize the overwhelming feeling of going through the job search and application process. Microsites for specific high volume jobs and locations are a great idea.

Your job description might be the very first thing a candidate sees - and we don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Creating relevant job descriptions, both digitally and written, is extremely important.

It’s also important to make the application process very simple - the candidate should be able to click once (from the job description) and have the option to upload their information or even easier, apply via 3rd party social site.


Our conversation with Elaine continues soon with a great topic: "You've Picked Your New ATS, Now What?"

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