The 17 Things to Think About Before Picking an Applicant Tracking System

Screen Shot 2013-05-14 at 9.47.38 AMYou post, you tweet, you activate social media, yet all the work you do to attract talent can go to waste if your applicant tracking system is too burdensome for candidates and your recruiting team. If you choose a strong applicant tracking system, your results will improve, candidates will have a great experience, and hiring managers will see more on-target resumes. A poor decision will have serious adverse effects costing you unhappy hiring managers, lost candidates, money, time, and frustration.

The following is a primer on things to take into consideration when making your decision on an applicant tracking system. It takes time and research, but the payoff will be well worth the effort.

  1. Company profile. Ensure you are acquiring an ATS that works best for your particular needs. There are three company profiles for users in the ATS field: enterprise, staffing agencies, and small/medium businesses. Although a vendor may claim their ATS is best for your company profile, don’t take their word for it. Read independent reviews,  ask for references of companies that are similar to your size and needs, and ask them.
  2. Ease of use. Your team should be able to use the system easily with minimum training. This will save you time and money, and your team will get a lot of use out of the system, making the investment worthwhile. You will find vendors will offer a number of bells and whistles, which may be confusing.  Ultimately, what is most important is whether it is easy to set up, intuitive, and requires minimal maintenance. A sample of questions you can ask the vendor: Is there a dashboard for the internal recruiter and/or hiring manager? Can you take us through the process for searching candidates and tracking applicants? Can we configure the system ourselves, or do we have to place an order (with the vendor) for changes each time? (This usually takes many days and is costly.) If your system needs to have global functionality, does the system have customization for other countries employment laws?
  3. Candidate experience. You will lose many candidates if they have a poor experience using the applicant tracking system. If they have to endure a lengthy and frustrating process because of too many clicks or slow performance, they will give up and leave your site. This is easily overlooked but one of the most important factors to take into consideration when evaluating an ATS. Sample questions: Can you take us through the application process for a candidate? (Look for number of clicks, intuitiveness, performance, and attractiveness.) Can we upload a candidate resume to the site? Are we testing a live system or a demo? (Performance will be different.) Can we do a mock test on a current customer’s site?  How do we set up an auto-reply with an acknowledgement of receipt when candidates apply? 
  4. Social networking/job posting. Ask the vendor to take you through their social networking and job posting capabilities. ATS vendors have made great strides in this area in recent years, which for lesser-known companies can be a very important asset as they can gain better candidate visibility. Sample questions: What job posting sites do you have access to? What social networking sites do you have access to? Can you take us through the posting process? (Ensure the interface is simple and easy to use.) If there are sites that cost additional money, can you give us discounts from the job site’s standard rates? How are we charged for postings at pay sites … By credit card, or by invoice?
  5. Search and matching. Surprisingly there are still ATS’s with poor search functionality. Ensure the searches are accurate, quick, and the results are laid out in a logical format. Learn what type of search engine they use. Make sure you have multiple testers perform actual searches on a live system. Sample questions: Is there a place to put notes and ticklers for follow up? If our needs are global, will the search function screen by country?
  6. Customer support. Customer support is an important factor in your decision, as usability, downtime, and performance issues can be crippling. You would ultimately like your vendor to have a 24/7 customer support team. However, 24/7 customer service is meaningless if the support is poor. Sample questions:  What hours and days of the week is your customer support team available? Is your customer support team comprised of employees or outsourced? Can you provide us with customer satisfaction ratings?  Do you have second- and third-level technical support capabilities? Is your customer support free for all requests?
  7. Reporting. Ensure the vendor has a reporting tool. Don’t just ask, but learn what they are reporting on.  There should be information at a minimum for time-to-fill, diversity (in the U.S.), and source of hire, among other things. Sample questions: What reports are standard? Can we configure the reporting tool, so we can run customized reports? If not, do we have to pay each time we need a custom report? How long does a custom report take to be delivered to us?
  8. The cloud vs. IT. Decide whether you want your vendor to maintain and update the system (software as a service), versus your company’s IT department’s maintaining it. Unless you have dedicated IT resources, go with a product that is updated and maintained by your vendor. You can hold them accountable and do not have to deal with over extended internal IT resources.
  9. Financial viability. Gather data on the vendor’s revenue, financial viability, and years in business, as vendors in this space come and go at an alarming rate. For example, when I was at T-Mobile our applicant tracking system vendor went bankrupt. It shut shop quickly and disappeared with its clients’ money and in many cases, data. This created a lot of frustration, lost money, and lost time as we and others scrambled to implement new ATS’s. Sample questions: Can you please provide us with your financials for the last three years? How many employees do you have? How many in Engineering, IT, and customer service? Can you please provide us with a list of your current customers?
  10. Easy integration. Depending upon your size, you will likely integrate the ATS with another system.  Small companies and most agencies will integrate the ATS with a website, while larger companies will integrate multiple systems. If you are a larger company, learn in great detail what resources the vendor will provide for the integration. Gain commitment as to when resources will be available. Some vendors may be over-extended, so ensure you will have dedicated resources available when you are ready for integration. (Also, ensure you have an internal project manager and IT resource.) If you are a smaller customer, ask what steps are taken to integrate the ATS with your website.
  11. Legal compliance. If you are a company with operations in the U.S., ensure the ATS has tracking tools for legal compliance so you do not expose yourself to lawsuits and fines. If you are doing business with the federal government, it is imperative that you are OFCCP compliant. (The OFCCP is responsible for ensuring that employers comply with the laws and regulations requiring nondiscrimination.) Even if you are not doing business with the government, the ATS should have tracking tools for race, sex, etc.
  12. Performance. Slow performance and down time can lead to lost candidates, frustrated users, and lost opportunities. Learn about the vendor’s up-time percentage record and the ATS’s speed. Sample questions: Can we do testing on live systems? What is your record regarding system outages? Where are your data centers/servers located? Are your servers located at multiple sites? (If their servers are located at one site and there is a natural disaster, you may have a lengthy down time.) If the sales representative cannot answer your questions, ask to speak with someone in IT.
  13. Internal candidate portal. For enterprise customers, internal movement is an important means to a healthy workforce and employee retention. Ensure that the ATS has a portal for employees to access, and that it is attractive and intuitive. Sample questions: Do you have a separate portal for internal employees to view positions? Will the internal recruiter be pinged when an internal employee applies? Can the internal recruiter post positions for internal employees’ eyes only? Can positions be posted for external and internal viewing concurrently, with editing capabilities for internal jobs?
  14. Employee referral portal. For enterprise customers, the ATS should have a separate portal for employees to refer their friends. Evaluate for the user experience, for both employee and the candidate. Sample questions: Do you have a separate portal for employees to refer candidates? Does the employee receive acknowledgement? Does the candidate receive acknowledgement? Does the internal recruiter get pinged when a referral has been sent in?
  15. Ownership of data. You may eventually change vendors, or change your business, so you will need your data. Ask the vendor if you can download your candidate resumes and records. If they say yes, then pry further so you understand exactly what records you will receive and in what format. Sample questions: How do we request a download of our candidate data? Can we download the candidate data ourselves? What format will we receive the data in? Will there be a charge for these services? Can we have a reference of a company that has downloaded their data?
  16. References. This is an absolute must. Ask the vendor for at least five references. Prepare a list of questions based on the 15 bullet points above. If possible, make sure you have at minimum an internal recruiter, an IT professional, and a hiring manager included in the meetings.
  17. Do research. You will not find unanimous happy customers for any ATS. But by doing some Google searches and reaching out to industry peers you will gain plenty more knowledge than you will from the vendor’s sales team. Reach out. Most people are more than happy to relate their experiences and give you suggestions. Also, ask if you can “try before you buy” or pilot the application. Many vendors will allow you to do so. If you do, make sure you put together a thorough checklist of items to test.

Making the best decision for an applicant tracking system takes plenty of effort. The consequences will be with you for a long time, so do your research now so there are no unpleasant surprises later. For those of you who have been through the evaluation process, I encourage you to share your tips and experiences below.

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image at top from Zoho

Randall Birkwood is a former director of recruiting at T-Mobile USA, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft Corporation, and HR at Intermec Technologies. While at T-Mobile his organization was listed in an ERE article as a top 10 benchmark firm in recruiting and talent management. He has been an advisory speaker at General Electric and AT&T for VPs and directors of HR, and spoken at a number of conferences in the U.S. and UK. He was the subject of a cover story on the "War For Talent" in Internet World Magazine.


27 Comments on “The 17 Things to Think About Before Picking an Applicant Tracking System

  1. I have used PCRecruiter for 15 years as both a Staffing Recruiter and a Corporate Recruiter. I have been in my current in-house corporate role since November of 2011, supporting our North American enterprise as the sole Recruiting Manager. As of May of 2013, we have hired over 200 associates and I couldn’t have done it without PCR. Their web interface allows candidates to apply for career openings on our website in just minutes. The product can be used for staffing & corporate recruiting as an ATS, as well as business development, sales & marketing as a CRM. Also, too, I know first-hand how diligent their 24 hour Support Team is and how well they respond. As an Outlook user, I couldn’t live without the Portal for Outlook integration feature–a game changer! Ratings for vendors are highly subjective, of course, but I am a huge fan of PCRecruiter!

  2. Hey has anyone tried MyEdu for Employers at all? They just launched a free trial today and might be something worth checking out if you are figuring our a new ATS system. I signed up for the free trial today and it looks like you can target college students by major, school, skills and more. Seems pretty fancy if I say so myself. You can find it here:

  3. Thanks, Randall. IMHO any ATS purchase showld have all the users (recruiters, sourcers, etc.) try it out for awhile for THEIR input.
    Also, as a final check the decision maker should work on it for a day doing everything that the users would do. With one ort =r the other, we might be stuck with fewer bloated, counter-intuitive, monstrosity ATS foisted upon us than we currently have.


  4. We’re currently evaluating several ATS software’s, the two that really appeal to us are JobScience on the SalesForce platform and BullHorn. Has anyone used either of these or have any insight on into them? Thanks for your help.

  5. Great insights, Randall. A key piece to assess is how (well) the ATS supports different flavours of recruiting / recruiting processes, especially for medium to large sized organizations that recruit anything from interns & grads to operations workers to functional specialists.

  6. Well, looking for the right one needs enough time and research as to which software functions exactly like your administrative assistant.

    If you could take a look at this blog it has a list of over 30 ATS systems with a comparison of all the features. You can edit the sheet if you like but I hope it helps you find the right ATS for your company.

  7. We use BirdDog HR ATS, awesome job distribution which are unlimited and free, unlimited users too which is nice for all of our internal recruiters/HR/management

  8. A lot of the companies suggested have no pricing listed on their website and require you to give up your personal info so a telemarketer can call you and do a sales pitch. That means they are more concerned with making money than saving you time.

  9. We offer you to try a free ATS (applicant tracking system) that is created specifically for recruiters and provides them with automated recruitment features that help significantly speed up the hiring process. So I thought it might be of interest to you.

    The program allows to:

    *Collect candidates from Facebook & Linkedin
    *Manage and organize the applicant review process with Kanban boards
    *Identify top prospective candidates
    *Protect confidential and private data

    In the near future we plan to add more features like:

    *Passive candidates search
    *Predictive hiring and analytics
    *Friendly interface and redesign

    Hence, I would highly appreciate your participation in the beta-testing of the system and your professional feedback on what should be fixed and/or optimized. As a thank-you, we will provide you a free access to all premium services.

    To take part in the beta testing, register with your email on the site:

    Again, thank you for your help.

  10. Great to see the top must-have features in an Applicant tracking System. I recently started working with Recruiterbox and am continually impressed by the round-the-clock customer service.

  11. Great to see the top must-have features in an Applicant tracking System. I recently started working with Recruiterbox and am continually impressed by the round-the-clock customer service.

  12. Hey Randall,

    I love your stuff. You described everything about picking an applicant tracking system. It helps recruiting firms to make hiring process success. Thanks for sharing these great points.

  13. Integration in best features of any applicant tracking system. Applicant Tracking Systems have been enhancing to integrate all applicable data from social networking sites. LinkedIn particularly emerges from all social networking sites of its exclusive focus on experts and recruiters.

    You can see how ATS systems integration with Linkedin –

  14. I’m a user of JobScore and I absolutely love it! It automates so much of the hiring process, making my life that much easier. JobScore also makes it easy to ask inbound job applicants the right questions. You can also apply filters and sort candidates based on how they answer questions. Easy set up, integrate once, and publish forever!

    Check it out:

  15. Great article ! We use Manatal (, great ATS, which is very easy to use, with quite some unique features. The customer support team is very nice and efficient. We strongly recommend it.

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