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RFP playbook for buying an ATS

BY -

John Zappe

October 8, 2021

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Not that long ago, when the price of applicant tracking systems was tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, few human resources departments would decide what to buy without an RFP.

The RFP, or request for proposal, detailed the features, functionality and other requirements of the applicant tracking system the company wanted. Sent to the vendors being considered, the respondents described how their systems matched up with the RFP, enabling buyers to make apples-to-apples comparisons.

Today, with most recruiting software moved to the cloud, companies license use of applicant tracking systems for as little as a few thousand dollars a year. Because it’s no longer a capital expense requiring an extensive procurement review, few organizations bother with an RFP.

Yet, there are several good reasons they should. 

This article explains why a human resources department should use an RFP and how to develop one when shopping for a new applicant tracking system or for any sort of recruiting software or application.

Why Write an RFP

The most important reason to draft a RFP in the age of cloud-based SaaS is that it compels the talent acquisition team to take a comprehensive look – maybe for the first time – at the hiring process and the workflow. Besides the individual operational steps, the analysis needs to take into account the overall talent strategy and recruiting goals.

A company that relies heavily on internal referrals will want recruiting software that includes that kind of feature or module. A different company seeking to improve the candidate experience and build a talent pipeline will want a system that has a full complement of communication tools. Recruiters spending a disproportionate amount of time on administrative tasks will look for a high level of automation.

The talent strategy, as much as the workflow and user experience, will help decide what functionality is a must and which features are nice, but expendable; especially when price is a consideration.

It will also have your RFP respondents talking about the results and effectiveness of their recruitment software and the overall scope of work, rather than sending you lists of features.

How to Write an Applicant Tracking System RFP

It’s essential, therefore, that all stakeholders in the selection process, including hiring managers and even executives, give their input. What’s been the user experience? Where are the bottlenecks in the workflow? What metrics do you track? And what do you need for EEO and other required reporting?

The human resources procurement team should also contact other companies to ask them what, in hindsight, they should have asked the vendor when they were shopping. Another area sometimes overlooked in the RFP is the after-market experience. Talk to other companies about their experience with customer support, then include a question about that in the RFP.

Typing keys

In companies transitioning to recruiting software from a manual process or stepping up from a dated applicant tracking system, stakeholders such as hiring managers may not even be aware of the expansive functionality available.

Interview scheduling, one of the most common bottlenecks in the hiring process, is a common feature of recruiting software. Automation of job posting to social media and job boards doesn't just save recruiters time, the metrics new systems provide help in choosing where the ads should go. That allows recruiters to focus efforts on the sites that generate the most new hires.

The conversations the ATS procurement team has with the stakeholders will help narrow down the requirements so the evaluation process is focused on what's actually needed to reach the organization's hiring goals and improve the workflow efficiency.

Templates Are a Guide

To simplify this part of the process, RFP templates are widely available online. Most cover every aspect of the hiring process from requisitions through onboarding and show how to write an effective RFP.

Some are so detailed they hit every one of the possible touchpoints. These run to several pages, listing multiple questions. 

A woman writing RFP templates

Your RFP should be tailored to fit the needs of your organization. Use these templates as guides for the process. They are valuable checklists to ensure you’re covering the full scope of work.

Templates also show you how to format an RFP and a reminder that the basics include the company name, telephone number and other contact information, and a due date for the RFP.

Thorough, but Simple

As much as an RFP should be thorough, it should also be simple. Have the vendors described how their applicant tracking system makes your hiring and selection process better? How does their system improve the candidate experience? Does it integrate with LinkedIn or other systems and recruiting modules? And, of course, what’s the price? Also, have them provide lists of the system features as an addendum to the RFP.

Once the RFP is ready, submit it to the vendors you’ve identified as potential partners. For that, feel free to check out our roundup of the Best ATS companies

Finally, What if a Vendor Doesn’t Reply to Your RFP? 

The RFP should not be the first contact you have with the vendors. They should know to expect the RFP and have indicated their willingness to participate. If yours is a small deal -- one user to only a few dozen -- don’t be surprised if the vendor declines to respond or answers only some of the questions. In those cases, use the RFP as a guide for the procurement team during a demo and test-driving of the software.

For large customers with license fees running into the many thousands, a vendor that doesn’t participate should be a red flag. If the sales team is non-responsive to a potential customer, that’s a good indication of what you can expect should you need help after signing. 

What your respondents say about their product and how they answer the RFP will simplify choosing the one or two or three that best meet your needs. Then it’s time to review the demo, ask for whatever additional clarification you need, negotiate the price and make the contract award.

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