Why You May Need a New ATS and How to Go About Getting One

February 10, 2020

An applicant tracking system (ATS) is to a talent acquisition professional what a smartphone is to the rest of the world — the indispensable technology that allows users to do endless tasks from a single platform.

In the same way a smartphone is so much more than a phone — camera, sound system, alarm clock, navigation tool, ad infinitum — an applicant tracking system is saddled with a name that sells short its far-reaching capabilities. These days a robust ATS can do everything from creating your job descriptions and posting them to screening candidates to creating offer letters and helping with background checks and dozens of things in between.  

Deciding when to get a new ATS is a matter of nearly byzantine complexity. As is selecting a vendor. But help is available: LinkedIn developed a buyer’s guide to ATS platforms. And LinkedIn itself recently chose a new ATS, so we asked Jennifer Shappley, a senior director for talent acquisition, and Tina Bhasin, a senior manager of talent acquisition, to share some insights about the process LinkedIn used to select a new platform.

Finding the right ATS will give your company the tools to source and recruit the best people possible more quickly, efficiently, and consistently.

Understanding why the time might be right to find a new ATS and knowing how to go about selecting a supplier could be the difference between winning the war for talent and . . . not winning.

The time for a new ATS is right if . . .

1. Your candidate experience is subpar

According to one 2016 survey, nearly 60% of candidates abandon applications because they’re too lengthy or complex. In a tight talent market, no company can afford to drive away that much of their prospective talent pool. Ideally, candidates should be able to upload a resume or LinkedIn profile in a few clicks — from either their laptop or smartphone — and they should never be asked to fill out forms that ask for the same information they’ve already uploaded. The right ATS will also give prospective candidates a seamless view into your career site and then help usher them through the whole hiring process, from application to offer letter, quickly and smoothly.

2. Your recruiter experience is subpar

Your recruiters will use the ATS more than anyone. “Making sure that you select a tool that improves the recruiter experience is critical,” Jennifer says. No recruiter wants to spend hours a day toggling between systems and platforms that often seem to be speaking different languages. Make sure your platform is making the lives of your recruiters easier and more productive. If it isn’t, find an ATS that will increase the speed and quality of your team’s hires — and pave the road to success rather than throw up barricades. 

3. Routine administrative tasks aren’t fully automated in your current system

An ATS is not delivering on its promise if it hasn’t freed you of daily administrative tasks and allowed you to focus on finding the best talent for your company. Among many other things, an up-to-date ATS should either provide or seamlessly connect to existing tools that provide templated emails for standard communications; post job openings automatically on internal and external job boards; screen candidates; schedule interviews; conduct background checks; generate job offers; and administer new-hire documentation.

4. It doesn’t support up-to-date metrics and analytics

A state-of-the-art ATS will collect and report analytics that can help you pinpoint possible bottlenecks and roadblocks in your hiring process. Your system should be able to keep tabs on where your best applicants are coming from — job boards, referrals, events, career site, recruiter sourcing, etc. — so that you can determine your sourcing-channel effectiveness. It should easily keep you abreast of time to hire, application conversion rate, offer acceptance rate, and even candidate experience. LinkedIn’s new Talent Hub, designed for small- and medium-sized businesses, provides real-time data and insights on the entire recruiting workflow, from your InMail response rate to your time to hire (with the average time spent on each stage).

5. It’s not facilitating fluid communication between recruiters, hiring managers, and executives

Your ATS should allow seamless communication between everyone on your hiring team and allow full visibility into timelines, schedules, and evaluations. Recruiters and hiring managers should be able to easily share resumes, profiles, feedback, and comments from start to finish.

6. Your current system struggles to integrate with outside vendors

One of the most important considerations with any ATS evaluation is how a new tool will fit into the existing architecture of HR tools for everything from job boards and skills assessments to background checks and onboarding. It’s critical to have your HR technology architect review the technical capabilities of the vendors under consideration. Work closely with your HRIT team to understand how you’ll want to leverage APIs (applied programming interfaces), and make sure that any prospective ATS can meet those expectations. LinkedIn, for example, offers Recruiter System Connect, a game-changing integration that connects LinkedIn Recruiter with other applicant tracking systems. But whatever you get, you’ll  probably want a platform that does as many functions, smoothly and easily, as possible. 

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Related: The 5 Tech Tools That Will Have the Biggest Impact on the Future of Recruiting

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There are other reasons you might want to consider a new ATS, and sometimes the spur may be as simple as your current one is too old or just too clumsy and jury-rigged, what engineers would call “kludgy.” But once you’ve decided to invest in a new system, you’ll need a road map to find the right one.

Go to school on the steps LinkedIn used to find its new ATS

In 2017, LinkedIn decided that it was time to get a new ATS. It was operating with two ATS platforms, one for engineering and one for the rest of the company.

“Over the last seven or eight years, we have shifted from a midsize company to a large enterprise,” Jennifer says. “And our needs have just evolved,” Tina chimes in.  

Jennifer and Tina had critical roles in LinkedIn’s recent search for a new ATS. Here are some of the key steps they and their teammates took when they evaluated and purchased a new applicant tracking system:

1. Treat the effort like a project

At LinkedIn, the ATS effort was treated like a product roll-out and was driven by guiding principles, a charter, timeline, governance model, roles and responsibilities, schedules, and next steps.

2. Identify the key stakeholders and impacted users

“Generally,” Jennifer says, “who’s really involved is talent acquisition and HRIT, and they are usually the decision-makers. Procurement is a critical partner that will help oversee the overall project and identify the vendors to whom you want to send a request for proposal (RFP) or request for information (RFI). And then another important one that not everybody thinks about is your house security team. In most organizations, security will need to be involved with vetting any technology product before it’s selected.” She noted that executives, such as the chief technology officer, may also be involved.

LinkedIn also had a lot of talent acquisition and talent operations subject matter experts involved in evaluating parts of the RFPs and the product demonstrations. This allows your company to leverage your in-house expertise and to make sure your final decision will have champions around the organization.

3. Identify a realistic universe of vendors

There may be more than 100 ATS suppliers, but you don’t want to review and evaluate 100 RFPs — and you don’t want 100 companies to go through the trouble (because this is no small task). Your pool of appropriate vendors will be shaped by the size of your company, your budget, your compliance and security needs, and your decision about whether to get an end-to-end ATS or a best-in-class.

Jennifer says LinkedIn felt there were, realistically, 12 to 15 companies that might have the right product and capabilities to handle the company’s ATS needs. In the end, LinkedIn sent RFPs to eight suppliers. “We wanted to be considerate of the time it takes to complete the RFP,” Jennifer says, “so we focused on the companies that we felt would be able to meet our requirements.” Give priority to companies with financial stability, a track record over time, a scalable product, strong customer reviews, and a similar vision for talent.

4. Write questions for your RFPs that are as specific and unambiguous as possible

You need to be as sure as you can about what you’re buying. Given wiggle room, a hard-driving salesperson may answer your question in a way that reflects best on their system but may not so much reflect what you’d be getting. “If I were giving somebody advice on putting an RFP together,” Jennifer says, “I’d tell them to try to remove the chance of misinterpretation.”

Jennifer gives an example. “Instead of asking, ‘Do you allow for capturing approvals on requisitions,’” Jennifer suggests, “ask, ‘Do you allow for dynamic approval routing? Do you also allow for delegates and proxies to be set up?’ Be that specific. It’s just the difference between asking a very simple question about capturing approvals and a much more specific one around are they dynamic, are they autopopulated, can you set up a delegate?”

5. Identify the in-house experts who will evaluate your RFPs

The granularity of your evaluations may depend on the size of your organization and the extent of your internal expertise. At LinkedIn, for example, HRIT focused mostly on application programming interface (API) setups and how integrations are done in the system. Legal scoured compliance and questions that touched on their purview. Subject-matter experts (SMEs) from talent acquisition and talent operations examined operational facets.

To avoid the bandwagon effect, the SMEs weren’t able to see other evaluations. “We wanted them to share their authentic opinions,” Tina says. “But we made sure that, holistically, we had good, fortified leaders who were looking from an end-to-end perspective and sharing their responses.”

6. Consider what a vendor can deliver today — and tomorrow

“Look at their future roadmaps,” Tina counsels. “They have something available now, but what is it they are innovating? What is it they are developing down the line that you want to be part of?”

7. Set up your supplier demonstrations for learning, not selling

After you’ve evaluated your RFPs, you’ll want to invite the strongest suppliers to come onsite to demonstrate what their ATS can actually do. “We have a prep meeting with each vendor,” Tina says, “explaining what we are looking for and creating a demo script. We made sure the vendor is prepared and they understand that these are the features and these are the areas that we really want to look into.”

The demos for LinkedIn typically ran three to 3 ½ hours. Even at that length, there’s a lot of material and capabilities to get through so the ATS Market Scan team had one other request of vendors. “We also communicated,” Tina says, “that we didn’t want them to spend too much time marketing their product.”

8. Get promises in writing

Sales teams, Jennifer says, are likely to paint a glowing picture of their products and particularly their limitless futures in which, like a magical genie, they will be able to make all your wishes come true. Her simple advice: Get it in writing. “That will ensure,” she says, “there is less ambiguity and frustration later in the process.” If possible, meet with the product and leadership teams of your leading vendors, not just their sales teams. The companies who make those teams available are likely to be the ones committed to a deep partnership.

9. Don’t hesitate to bring in outside help if needed

“Before going out to RFP,” Jennifer says, “if you don’t have the expertise within your organization to manage the process and understand the vendor landscape and help evaluate it, if you have very few people on your talent acquisition or HRIT team who’ve ever done a vendor evaluation, it would be very worthwhile to hire a consultant to help you navigate the process.” Jennifer adds that an implementation consultant can also be helpful for a team that hasn’t purchased an ATS before.

“Plan in your budget,” she says, “not just for the tool itself but for any additional support you need to hire, internally and externally. That can be money be very well spent.”

Final thoughts: Select your vendor, implement, and enjoy the fruits of a tool that will allow you to focus on finding world-class talent

Once you’ve shared and absorbed the evaluations of your demo review team, it’s time for a decision. At LinkedIn, the final call went to Brendan Browne, global head of talent acquisition, and Joanne Wrenn, global head of talent services. But it was informed by the insights and input of dozens of people. “The HR technology market has exploded with some amazing companies in the last few years,” Joanne says. “We want to invest in tools that provide an awesome experience and make work significantly better for our employees and for our candidates.”

“When evaluating new tools,” Brendan adds, “it’s critical to have a cross-functional team conduct a detailed RFP. This team did just that and then presented a strong recommendation with all the supporting data and insights, making our role easy.”

Decision made, it’s time to negotiate the specifics of your contract.

“We had an amazing procurement partner,” Jennifer says, “who really helped us in negotiating. If you don’t have one, find one.” She says that once you’ve selected a winning ATS, you’ll get excited about the system and just want to get started, which is when a strong procurement partner will protect you and your organization.

“Our internal partner really helped us negotiate the best deal,” Jennifer says, “and the best terms and really took a critical eye to the contract. That was a partner that people don’t think about enough.”

Clearly, landing the right ATS entails some heavy lifting — many steps, myriad considerations, and a battalion of internal and external experts. But then you wouldn’t buy just any smartphone, why would you buy just any ATS?

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