atsIt’s not the fault of applicant tracking systems (ATS) that they’re somewhat schizophrenic; after all, they’re built to serve many different masters and their often competing demands.

Whether you’re an HR leader relying on an ATS for compliance, a recruiter accessing the system daily to search for resumes and store notes, a senior executive looking for analytics or an admin managing tasks and running reports, there are almost as many end uses for most enterprise ATS implementations as there are end users.

Of course, for anything but the most simple or straightforward of tasks, most of these systems are borderline at best, so it only makes sense that they’d have developed the SaaS equivalent of a borderline personality disorder.

But don’t blame the software – it’s not the technology that’s gone completely mental. It’s the fact that the all-in-one, absolutely amazing, “As Seen on TV” type hype surrounding this software has set unrealistic expectations, both during the selection and implementation process, about what these systems’ capabilities are truly capable of.

In almost every category, ATS software fails to deliver as promised – which has left many organizations unhappy with their existing recruitment systems or shopping around for a new one. But simply replacing an old or obsolete ATS with a newer version with some extraneous bells and whistles fails to fix the fundamental issue that we’re expecting too much out of our systems. The thing is, most work as expected when they’re used as intended – it’s just that our intended uses continue to expand so fast that no system could ever keep pace with our demands.

This creates a vicious cycle in which our system serves as a pariah for a much more basic process problem – a cycle that’s only getting worse as our needs (and related demands) continue to expand. Recruiters now demand their applicant tracking systems have social and mobile capabilities, referral plug-ins and employer branding widgets, not to mention an entire suite of marketing and CRM tools that simply didn’t exist even three years ago.

That’s why it’s so essential that for a system to evolve along with your organization’s recruiting needs today – and tomorrow – integrations are everything. It’s no longer a matter of what these systems can do independently; rather, employers and agencies have to consider the entire ecosystem of third-party partners and point solutions offering existing integrations which extend and augment these systems. A provider’s current and future partners play a vital role in determining the relative success or failure of any ATS implementation. Yet far too often, this crucial criteria is almost entirely ignored during the ATS selection process.

Setting the Line: 9 Criteria for Scoring Applicant Tracking Systems

I recently had the pleasure of helping lead an applicant tracking system selection, and wanted to share some of the lessons I learned while vetting these vendors at my own organization. One method in particular stood out as particularly useful in expediting the process; you can download the document embedded below to build a weighted scorecard to ensure all potential providers are measured on an even playing field by using uniform benchmarks based on preestablished criteria.

The 9 Criteria I developed were based on beginning the purchasing process by posing critical questions to representative members in each stakeholder group who would represent the systems’ ultimate end users. The only real question I found I needed, however, was a simple one: “What do you hate about the current solution?”

Talk about opening up Pandora’s Box. But after the venting and vitriol that inevitably accompanied any response, I found I could more easily get them to rank their specific pain points and most critical challenges to determine which features were ‘want to have’ vs. ‘need to have’ when considering a new applicant tracking system.Those wants and needs then became the subcriteria that you’ll see on the second tab of the worksheet. Each item in this equation is valued equally to develop an average of the criteria in aggregate to ensure objective consideration of the identified criteria.

This exercise is critical for any successful software selection process; I’d strongly encourage you to start with getting similar stakeholder buy-in and developing your own unique criteria to suit the specific challenges facing your talent organization. I’d also recommend using the notes column in this spreadsheet to create transparency and consistency around scoring as well as methodology for ranking relative criteria (e.g. systems with lower prices score higher than more expensive solutions).

Software Demos and Scoring: A Recruiting Technology Test Drive

rolledPowered with this basic checklist, you’ll then want to take the time to meet with vendor representatives – ideally from the product team and not just some sales guy – for a comprehensive demo and systems walk through.

Let them know when scheduling this initial conversation that you have specific questions that must be comprehensively answered for continued consideration as a contender for your business.

If they insist on a standard demo, that’s OK, but make sure that you allocate ample time to making sure your questions are directly answered and that their product knowledge is sufficient to give you the information required to rate each vendor 0-3 on the scoring system on the first page of the spreadsheet.

If they’re unable or unwilling to answer these questions to your satisfaction, make sure to follow up to get sufficient answers or written responses to any outstanding issues or concerns you might have.

If there are other members of your team involved in the selection, make sure that they’re able to participate in this initial demo conversation and meet with them briefly afterwards to compare notes and agree on a score for each sub-criteria you’ve identified.

Going back to the first tab on the worksheet, you’ll note that each of the 9 criteria has an associated percentage that it’s weighted against.

Of course you’ll want to set these benchmarks at the beginning, but make sure to meet after you’ve actually done a few demos to discuss whether or not these are still the most meaningful criteria.

We significantly changed our weighting for categories as some features we identified as ‘value added’ ended up shifting in hindsight to ‘strategic priority.’ The weighted score will highlight the seemingly slight variances between ATS’ key features, which can make a huge difference in impacting the outcome of your software selection.

Switching systems can be scary. The good news is, you’ll survive. Don’t fear change, but don’t run into a burning building without having a plan – or at least a pretty decent exit strategy. If you lack the resources, time, experience or business case for switching vendors, you need to first anticipate whether the costs of changing systems will outweigh the costs incurred in implementing one – and that can often be a pricey proposition, at least up front. But you’ve got to commit to change to create it. Period.

A word to the wise: applicant tracking system selection can be done by committee; so too can implementation. But the truth of the matter is that someone in your organization will ultimately be responsible for managing the project and have to run point on an often complex configuration or involved implementation process. If you don’t have that dedicated resource to spare, consider outsourcing the project, or at least bringing in an outside analyst or experienced consultant to help get the project done more effectively and efficiently.

The Legacy of Legacy Systems: Opportunity Costs & Obsolete Software

enterprise_softwareIndecision is a decision. There are opportunity costs of staying with your current ATS, too – you don’t necessarily need to make a switch to pay a premium for your system that’s lagging behind the market or isn’t even being actively developed. In fact, while it seems the M&A frenzy within the HR Technology space has slowed, many of the legacy systems out there aren’t anywhere on product roadmaps or being actively supported, much less built out. Of course, your provider might assure you otherwise, but if you haven’t seen a major update or new feature rolled out in the past 6 months, chances are that this platform is probably being sunsetted sometime soon.

For many vendors, pulling the plug on these legacy platforms is a conscious decision; when you’re losing customers faster than you’re acquiring them, then it just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep dedicating resources to the product – better to let it die than continue hemorrhaging cash.

It’s just the circle of life for a software’s life cycle (cue the Lion King theme). This means that users of these systems will soon be faced with a choice: upgrade or lose support. This forced decision can force a huge crisis – or at least be a little harder to swallow – if you don’t have a Plan B in place.

Which is why there’s no better time than now to start figuring out what’s out there and at least put your foot in the water of applicant tracking software selection. Open enrollment is almost over, headcounts won’t reset until the beginning of the year, and most candidates (and clients) are out of the office for the holidays.

Now may be the best time to finally get with the system – or at least start building a scorecard and a strategy for that day when you and your leadership finally decide to quit bitching about your crappy ATS and actually do something about it.

aaron lintAbout the Author: Aaron Lintz is a Talent Sourcing Specialist with @Commvault Systems. Over the last decade, he has held corporate sourcing and agency recruiting roles, helped develop applicant tracking solutions, and managed email & social marketing programs. His passions for experimentation, automation, and willingness to share make him a natural sourcer.
Follow Aaron on Twitter @AaronLintz or connect with  him on LinkedIn.