How to choose the right ATS

Not many people get the opportunity to choose their ATS as it is already there when they start, or they inherit it as the result of a project that they were not part of. Whilst it may sound very exciting to be responsible for buying a new ATS, if you get it wrong you could end up worse off than before but if you get the foundations right, you can minimise the risk of failure.

Tactical or strategic

You will need to know if buying an ATS is a short term tactical project (1-3 years) or part of a longer term strategic plan (3+ years). It may be that someone is working on a longer term technology strategy that will at some point deliver an ATS albeit not for a ‘few years’. Or it may be that you need to look at the ATS as part of a bigger talent management project that will at some point require learning, performance and succession planning. Either way, you need to know if your project is a short term fix or part of a long term plan.


You’re going to need one but the budget game can often be a bit chicken and egg. You may be ‘given’ a budget, that may or may not be sufficient, or you may have to build a business case to get a budget.

If you’ve been given a budget, you can move to the next step although you may have to ask for more money later once you have got your shortlist of vendors. If however you haven’t been given a budget, you’ll need to find out who needs what kind of information in order to give you a budget. It may be that you have to get costs from a vendor so you can define and then request your budget, but if this is the case, make sure you tell vendors your situation in advance. And also tell the vendors your budget so they can let you know in advance if that’s within their price range.


Define which departments will be impacted by your ATS project such as:

  • HR.
  • Line Managers.
  • IT.
  • Legal.
  • Recruitment agencies.
  • Advertising agencies.
  • Advertising channels.
  • Any other technology providers.

As part of defining your scope, you also need to map out your workflow which will in turn help you define some of the functionality you will need within the ATS.


I see a number of workflows that have not been changed from when the ATS was first implemented, simply because no one has thought to change because it was ‘assumed’ that was the way it had to be. So now could be your big chance to get the workflow you’ve always wanted although getting your workflow right can be like a game of snakes and ladders, both before and after go-live.

At this stage you are aiming for around 80% done and no more. You just need to get the high-level aspects clear for your key areas of recruitment such as:

  • Head Office.
  • Operational roles.
  • High volume roles.
  • Niche area 1 e.g. IT.

If you try and get every part of the workflow perfect you’ll never move beyond this stage of the process. I prefer 80% done than never done/perfect.

Functionality checklist

Once you have your high level workflow you can start to define your product and functionality needs. You can use something like the checklist below.

You should also have a checklist for service and support similar to below.

You can create your functionality list from your workflow but also by looking at a few vendor websites to get high level information. You will be able to add more detail after a few product demonstrations which should also help you refine your workflow. You may also want to share your initial functionality list with some of your network so see if they can both add to the list but also advise how their current ATS vendor compares to your needs.

The shortlist

To make sure you select the right vendors for your shortlist you need to know if your project is:

  • Tactical or strategic?
  • TA, ITM or HCM?
  • Single language, single country use or bigger?

Be aware, the more global and ITM/HCM focused the vendor is, the more likely their costs will also be higher than a UK only ATS vendor who serves smaller companies of less than 1000 employees (as well as larger). This doesn’t mean that UK focused vendors are cheap or inferior, it’s about buying the most relevant product for your needs.

Having answered the questions above, you can use the vendor lists in this guidebook as a start point and review the product and functionality sections of their websites to match them against your functionality criteria.

Some additional questions to consider:

  • Were first impressions of the website good?
  • Is their website easy to navigate and find information?
  • Does the product appear to meet your initial criteria?
  • Do they have any customer case studies or lists/logos of customers?
  • Are any of the customers listed similar size/industry to you?
  • Overall did you leave their website with a good impression?

At this stage, I would aim for 3-4 in the initial shortlist as you can always update it at a later stage. Once again, you can always discuss your findings with your network to see if there are any obvious missing points or vendors for you to consider.

Process timescales

Don’t try and rush the process, end up making mistakes and missing your deadlines. So often buyers state very short timescales and never achieve them whether that be the buying decision or the project steps. Assume it will all take twice as long as very often internal debates over relatively small issues can eat up a lot of time.

Be very transparent with the vendors about your process and timescales so they can work with you rather than continually chase you for updates. And keep them updated. There is nothing worse than a buyer who calls in a number of vendors, gets them to invest time and money in helping the buyer find the right vendor, but then cast them aside with no final decision. Treat the vendors like candidates/customers, it costs nothing extra to be a professional buyer.

" Treat the vendors like candidates/customers, it costs nothing extra to be a professional buyer.

The demonstration

The first rule of the demonstration, is allow more than 1 hour per vendor as you cannot conduct a decent product demonstration and conversation in 1 hour. You need to learn about the vendor and they also need to learn about you as with any relationship, both parties have to make it work. Selecting an ATS vendor is very similar to hiring a new person. You need to make sure the skills (functionality) and personality (culture) fit the job role (project scope).

As you will have defined your important functionality requirements and your high level workflow, use the demonstration to get the vendor to show you some of your ‘real life’ functionality such as:

  • How to create a new job from the job library.
  • How to choose the right workflow for a new job.
  • How to find applicants in the database.
  • How a Line Manager can review applicants.

To make these examples as real as possible, provide example jobs to the vendor and any other supporting information such as workflows, departments etc. The more you give them in advance, the better the demonstration should be. Don’t let the vendor control the demonstration format and content though, as they do demonstrations on a regular basis so will be able to make their product look amazing even if it does not meet your criteria.

The legals

Ask for a copy of the standard agreement from each vendor you have shortlisted and always get legal/procurement to check the contract. As with price, no point getting to the end of the process and then not being able to complete the deal because of a legal issue that could have been identified earlier.

It would be remiss of me to give any legal advice as I’m not a legal expert, but also because different companies have different legal priorities hence let your own legal people advise you. All you need to do is get the details to them.

IT infrastructure

You would not buy a beautiful car that was unreliable, likewise you don’t want a great looking ATS that is slow and unreliable due to technical constraints. The vendor may tell you they have everything covered as they use AWS (Amazon Web Services) to host their product, but your IT team may have other views and/or questions. Such as, what happens when AWS goes down, which has happened on a very small number of occasions.

Remember, you are not an IT expert and in many cases, neither is the representative of the ATS. Best to be sure for both parties.

Customer references

Always talk to 2-3 customers to get some feedback on both product and support. Obviously a vendor will introduce happy customers, and why wouldn’t they. A happy customer is in my experience, more likely to give you an honest and transparent overview.

For those same customers, I’d ask for their views on their candidate experience and career site before you test it for yourself. It’s important to get their views first as often recruitment and the vendor may be constrained in what they can do so the career site may not be something to judge them by.

Test drive

Once you are down to the final two vendors, you need to take a test drive. On your own. Most vendors (and I worry about any that can’t) can give you a demonstration version of their product to allow you drive in your own time. Make sure you allocate time to do this part of the assessment as otherwise it will be a pointless exercise and, the vendor will know if you’ve tried it out or not.

To start off, follow the same activities that you saw in the demonstration. The vendor will know their system so will have made it look easy (which it most likely is) but you won’t know their system as well, so you may or may not be able to complete the tasks as easily. This also helps you get a feel for how a new user is most likely to react so if you find it easy, this is an indication that user training may not be too intense.

The project plan

Once you have selected your vendor ask them for a typical project plan for an implementation of a similar project scope. They will be running projects on an ongoing basis so should be able to give you some guidance on key

milestones and timings.

Once you have an initial project plan you can then take this to your internal team and update it before working with the vendor to create a final project plan.

" In most cases the buyer spends too much of their budget on the actual ATS (licence fees) and does not have enough left for the implementation and project management work.

Total costs

In most cases the buyer spends too much of their budget on the actual ATS (licence fees) and does not have enough left for the implementation and project management work. Try not to fall into this trap as lack of project resource will result in project delays which will in turn impact the success of your project.

You could easily need 2-4 times the amount for full project implementation as you do licence fees, although this will not be quite so severe for smaller projects.

Go live

Some vendors will want to be at your main office when the ATS goes live, which is never a bad idea, although not vital or in some cases possible. Either way, you need to be available for the first week as this is when people take real notice of the new processes, and very often they highlight things that they should have identified during the testing phase.

Also, have an agreed freeze stage when no changes can be made but collate a list. This may only be a 2-4 week period but what you don’t want to do, is react to every single change and then bombard the vendor with lots of things which in turn have to be managed and rolled out. Better to stay calm, make your list, keep the vendor updated and then get the work done on a pre-agreed schedule. This way it’s a lot easier to manage and rollout to users.

Business as usual

Plan in regular updates with your vendor. It doesn’t matter if they are monthly, quarterly or annual but make sure you keep on communicating. It may sound obvious, but where I see the ATS fail the most, is when communication has not been happening, the relationship fades away and everyone blames the ATS.

ATS vendor classification

Y - Part of core product

N - Not available

C - Available through customisation

I - Available as third party integration