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What to Look For in an ATS (Expert Insight From a CEO)

Scalability, automation, and speed are all important things to look for in an ATS.

Phil Strazzulla
HR Tech Expert, Harvard MBA, Software Enthusiast
Contributing Experts
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What to Look for in an ATS

The most important things to consider when purchasing an applicant tracking system are scalability, automation, speed, collaborative features, security, and candidate engagement.

To achieve this the best ATS systems integrate features like unified job positing across multiple boards, searchable resumes, custom email workflow automations, candidate segmentation, and a seamless user interface.

That's according to Rahul Bansal, CEO of outsourced digital marketing firm, TribalVision.

In This Article

An In-Depth Look at Buying a New ATS

An impressive 75% of recruiters and other HR specialists use an applicant tracking system (ATS), and with good reason. The best ATS systems add immense value to your hiring funnel - from helping you find and contact candidates, auto-screening applicants for the most valid talent, to tracking your hiring progress. Naturally, using an ATS saves an immense amount of time.

We recently had the opportunity to speak with Rahul about his applicant tracking system buying journey. It was incredibly valuable to hear about this process, considering the needs of his team, and the sheer number of options on the market today. Here's what we learned.

Getting to the Point of Needing an ATS

Do you mind giving us a quick background on yourself, and why you were in the position to be looking at a new ATS? (0:42)

"My name is Rahul Bansal – I'm the CEO of TribalVision, which is a full-service integrated digital marketing agency that serves the lower-middle market companies between ten to about $400 million in revenue."

It's no secret that, in the marketing and advertising industry, job-hopping and turnover is a real problem. With a turnover rate of around 29 percent, a good ATS is crucial for agencies like TribalVision – but for a while, the company went without.

"I acquired tribal vision in July 2020," Bansal explained. "The company had been in existence for about 10 years at that point in time, and they had no ATS system in place. They were using an integration with Gmail called Streak, which is a CRM platform. I found it very cumbersome and heavy and difficult to navigate. Essentially, I wasn't seeing candidates that come in easily, there was no workflow process to seamlessly work through administrative tasks."

It isn't uncommon for companies to neglect their ATS in favor of a flashy CRM. In fact, 61% of companies spend more money on their CRM than their ATS, while others fail to use an ATS altogether. This quickly becomes a problem, as you need both systems in order to be successful.

Can you give us a sense of how many people approximately you were hiring on an annual basis? (3:45)

"We were hiring about 15 to 20 people a year. I would say right now, we're probably at a run rate of hiring between 20 and 35 people a year."

Bansal accounted for this growth by explaining that, at the beginning of his time in the company, he was hyper-focused on hiring and diversifying.

"Soon after I acquired the business, I went through a very substantial reorganization, building a functional leadership model with three departments: I would be hiring not only junior level talent, but junior, mid, and senior level talent. I'm a believer that the best organizations have internal promotions, and are also infusing new talent at all levels of the organization."

It was crucial to have better systems in place to accommodate such a shift; 86% of recruiters say that their ATS considerably speeds up time-to-hire, and with only one HR rep, Bansal desperately needed the efficiency boost.

"The level of recruiting efforts was going to be amped up substantially. And I wanted to have a more scalable platform in place that would allow for this. But I had one HR manager, who was responsible for all administrative benefits, and wearing all hats."

Criteria for choosing an ATS vendor

Your ATS Decision Criteria

How did you think about what was important, from a product standpoint, when you went out and started looking at vendors? (5:57)

"Price and functionality. As a small business, I didn't need anything too sophisticated, and ATS price was an important consideration for me. I recognized the need for ATS to better manage talent acquisitions in a more sustainable way."

Considering that an ATS can save an average of $10,000 in time and resources, it was a no-brainer for Bansal to invest in the system – but there were a number of characteristics he was looking for in particular. He wanted an ATS that was:

  • Scalable. "If we were ever going to do things more efficiently, especially after we had hit that inflection point of about 60 to 70 employees, we needed something more scalable. An applicant tracking system was a far more scalable tech than Excel and Streak."
  • Not admin-intensive. "With an ATS system, you don't have to manually publish jobs to every single job board. We were moving to this world of posting 10, 15 requisitions at a time; with a click of one button, you can reduce all those administrative tasks."
  • Fast and collaborative. "A resume would come in; it would notify the direct hiring manager, and they would vote on the candidate and whether to move them forward in the process. I wanted to quickly be able to share notes, synthesized in one place where all insights can be seen."
  • Securely automated. "When you're using an ATS, things don't fall through the cracks. If a candidate is not moving forward in the process, emails are automated through those workflows. And I think you just have a much stronger presence and brand by engaging in this process with some type of tech."
  • Engaging for applicants. "There's a talent war out there in the market right now, and I think it's critically important to have a strong candidate experience. This type of technology allows us to cater to that far better than a manual process."

Applicant tracking systems, on average, tend to cost between $60 and $100 per user, per month. That can add up quickly for small businesses – which is why Bansal thought very critically about the traits he wanted his ATS to have, and whether they were worth the investment.

Getting Executive Buy-in for an ATS

I think a lot of people watching will be HR managers trying to get the buy-in from somebody like yourself. Where does buying an ATS fall in the priority stack? (11:13)

For Bansal, purchasing an applicant tracking system immediately fell into his top-priority list. It was clearly going to solve a lot of problems for the business. After getting a second opinion, he felt that the investment of both time and money would more than pay off.

"I partnered with an HR consultant firm called Agile Talent to do a basic assessment of our HR stack, and it was made immediately clear that an ATS system would make our lives increasingly easier, especially with the number of open requisitions that we would have."

There were a few key benefits of ATS he noticed right away: lighter administration load, greater efficiency, better talent coming through the doors, and more.

"As someone who had recruited so heavily for 10 years and understood the importance of getting good talent in the doors, I was increasingly frustrated; I had no system to see all the candidates that were coming in. I wanted the functionality to vote immediately so that HR knows what my view on a candidate is. An ATS would solve that instantaneously."

To convince your CFO that investing in an ATS is worth the spend, we highly recommend signing up for our free online course on Calculating and proving the ROI of using HR Tech or read our guide on how to calculate ATS ROI

Who else did you get involved internally with this process? (14:23)

"Getting internal stakeholders involved is critical to the success of this process. People want to feel empowered about the decisions they make, especially the recruiting department. I made sure to have our HR manager be a key stakeholder in this process."

Getting stakeholder buy-in is certainly crucial for something as systemic as an ATS, which will have a direct impact on the way that everyone in the company recruits. If you want to be supported in the changes that you're making, it's important to show how those changes will positively impact the business as a whole.

"I also looped in the chief of staff who helps me within the business. Because he had gone through multiple vendor purchasing processes with me; he knew how rigorous I wanted to be in evaluation, and he knows how to negotiate effectively based on seeing me do it in the past."

After getting key team members involved, Bansal whittled his options down to just a few vendors and went with his chief of staff to listen to the sales pitches.

"We did the initial and second demos for the three applicant tracking systems against the criteria that we had for ourselves, then I looped in our HR manager and got her buy-in. I also combined a layer of knowledge that our HR consultant had – they were very familiar with one of these vendors in particular, Jazz HR. And that did have some influence on our decision-making."

With the combined knowledge of his team, they were able to make the decision that best fitted TribalVision.

Negotiating with Vendors and Sealing the Deal

How long was the process from when you made ATS a priority through to signing the contract? (19:08)

"About two months. I didn't have the luxury to draw this out; I had an HR manager, I had an HR consultant, and my Chief of Staff, plus the rest of the organization excited about bringing on board an ATS. We also had to go through a list of other HR software tech that we had to evaluate, like a performance management system. So I felt two months was sufficient."

Bansal and the team were able to make their decision in that allotted time frame, having plenty of insight into their vendor through word-of-mouth reviews.

"Our largest competitor in Boston, who I'm friendly with, had been growing about 100 to 150 percent year over year for the last two years, and had been recruiting extensively. And they were on Jazz HR as well. So we had a lot of validation, which allowed us to more quickly make a decision."

Choosing an ATS vendor

Were there any other key criteria that pushed you in the direction of Jazz HR? (21:20)

When deciding between three key vendors, Bansal and his team made the excellent decision to agree on a set of criteria they could use to rate each one. This made it easier to see which vendor was the best fit for their needs.

Their criteria included:

  • Unifies job posting across multiple job boards
  • Interviewers can create interview question templates
  • Ability to search through resumes for keywords
  • Ability to create qualities for each hire for specific roles
  • Assigns specific questions to address certain qualities
  • Identifies and resolves duplicate resumes as they come in
  • Automates emails for different workflows
  • Has a section for 'benched' or archived applicants
  • Seamless and intuitive user interface

When push came to shove, all three vendors met these criteria to some degree – but it was a matter of price and suitability that made the final decision to land with Jazz HR.

"There was very varied pricing across these three systems, and we were driving competitive tension by saying, 'We were speaking to this vendor. They have this; it doesn't seem like you have this. We'll consider going with you if you bring pricing down 30%.'"

Simply having an in-depth understanding of each vendor, and how they met or didn't meet their criteria, gave them the ability to put together a pricing strategy that worked in their favor.

Were there any other negotiation tactics that you used to get a better price? (24:37)

"I am a believer that you have to make the ask, and you have to be ready to walk. I said, 'If you're not able to get to this price, I think we're gonna have to hold off on moving forward and potentially move with another ATS vendor.' And they all came back within 24 hours, either with 'No, we can't do anything greater than this', or 'We were actually able to meet your request and come down to your pricing.'"

If you're a small business, it's so valuable to learn how to negotiate and get a fair price. Tactics like this aren't unfair or unkind; as Bansal said, you simply need to ask for what you feel is a fair price, and be willing to walk away if you don't get it.

Post-purchase ATS Implementation

How long was it before you guys started driving value from the tool? (26:33)

It's always nerve-wracking in those first few weeks and months after making a serious investment; will the effort pay off? Fortunately for Bansal, his team saw results quickly.

"Having Agile Talent helped us with the implementation. It took about a month for them to get in there, set it up the way we wanted for our organization, train the HR manager, and train the key hiring managers for the first four or five open requisitions that we were putting on the system."

The HR partner, Agile Talent, was able to help them build out the ATS so that it worked for their business, and then train key users so that they could get the most out of it. This kind of help can be invaluable when you're trying to onboard a new piece of software effectively.

"I'm so glad we had an HR partner who knew how to integrate Jazz HR and help us onboard the platform. Otherwise, I feel like we would have fallen flat on our face. I highly recommend using an HR consultant; I think it made a huge difference for seamlessly adopting the platform very quickly."

Reflecting on Your Buyer Experience

How has the reality lined up relative to your expectations? (28:46)

"Everything we wanted has played out perfectly. It's brought so much value to the organization, and it's brought leverage to our HR manager. The ability to vet people very quickly as soon as the resume comes in the door is tremendous. Some days, my inbox is flooded with Jazz HR requisitions. But that's okay – it takes me 15 to 30 seconds to go through these resumes."

Is there anything looking back that you would have done differently? (31:58)

The ATS process was fairly seamless for the team at TribalVision, but Bansal did have a final piece of advice to share with anyone considering an ATS purchase.

"I highly recommend that anyone who's looking at using an ATS use the SelectSoftware Reviews organizer. I recall a great blog that was linked to that organizer on 300 questions to use to evaluate vendors. We obviously didn't ask 300 questions, but it allowed us to pick out the top 15 to 20 questions that we wanted to consistently ask these three vendors that we were evaluating."

While most vendors will have plenty of information about their services or products on the company website, you'll never know whether the vendor is truly a fit for your business until you ask the right questions. Be sure to do your research and ask pointed questions so that you can make the best decision for your company.

Phil Strazzulla
HR Tech Expert, Harvard MBA, Software Enthusiast
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Phil is the founder of SelectSoftware Reviews, a website dedicated to helping HR and Recruiting teams find and buy the right software through in-depth, expert advice. He has bought over $1 million worth of HR and Recruiting tools. Additionally, as of 2023, nearly 3 million HR professionals have relied on his advice to determine which business software they should buy.

Phil studied finance at New York University and started his career working in venture capital before getting his MBA from Harvard Business School. His in-depth understanding of the Saas landscape, especially HR Tech, stems from nearly a decade of researching and working with these tools as a computer programmer, user, and entrepreneur.

Featured in: Entrepreneur Harvard Business School Yahoo HR.com Recruiting Daily Hacking HR Podcast HR ShopTalk Podcast Employer Branding for Talent Acquisition (Udemy Course)

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