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Recruitment Tech 101: What is an Applicant Tracking System? (ATS)

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Welcome to Recruitment Tech 101. In this series, we’ll capture some frequently asked questions about recruitment technology and its benefits for agencies. First up: What is an ATS?


If you work in recruitment, you’ve probably heard of the term applicant tracking system (ATS). But what does it mean? And why are they integral to recruitment success? Read on for the basics or check out the ATS Buyer’s Guide for a more in-depth look at the wonderful world of applicant tracking systems.

What’s an applicant tracking system (ATS)?

An applicant tracking system automates an organisation’s recruiting and recruitment operations and provides a central repository for candidate data—including résumés and applications. An ATS is built to help you better manage every stage in the recruiting process, from application to hire, while delivering greater overall efficiency.

How Do Applicant Tracking Systems Work?

True to their name, applicant tracking systems track the activity of your candidates, automating all of the stages that would otherwise require manual data entry. A good ATS will track all activity from the candidate resume in your inbox all the way through final placement (and beyond) freeing up your recruiters to focus on relationships. Because the applicant tracking system is capturing all of this data in real-time, you can also use it for real-time reporting to learn how to improve your processes.

Why Should I Use an ATS?

A good ATS has the power to overhaul your entire recruitment operation into the most productive, profitable, and efficient business it can be. With proper implementation, they increase recruiter productivity, save time, and provide organisation and structure for your recruiting operations.

Specifically, agencies that use an ATS report:

  • 75% less time wasted time
  • 70% faster report creation
  • 15% less time to fill
  • 10% more placements per month
Why Use an ATS

Recruitment agencies that use an applicant tracking system report more placements and less unproductive time than firms that don’t. Ninety-four percent of recruiting professionals say their ATS has positively impacted their hiring process.

ATS Benefits

What is it specifically about an applicant tracking system that makes it so important to your staffing success? You can find a comprehensive list of ATS benefits here, but here are some of the top reasons people invest in an applicant tracking system.

  1.  Avoid Errors: As your business grows, it’s easy for bad data to slip through the cracks. And spotting an error in thousands of rows of numbers and names can be near-impossible. As your team’s data—and potential mistakes—pile up, it can have costly repercussions on your reporting and your business.
  2. Source Candidates More Efficiently: Want to step up your candidate sourcing game? Existing candidates within an ATS is the number one source for identifying quality candidates, according to a survey of staffing professionals—outpacing referrals, social media, and job boards. With the organisation an ATS provides, it’s easier to place and redeploy candidates.
  3. Find the Solutions That Match Your Needs in an Open Ecosystem: Your firm’s needs are never going to be exactly the same as another agency’s needs, so how do you get around that? The best applicant tracking systems have an open ecosystem. With an open platform, you can customise your ATS to meet your specific needs by integrating third-party vendors, adding partner extensions, and building new applications on your platform.  
  4. Improve the Client Experience: A good recruitment ATS can help you better manage your client relationships in a number of ways. For example, it can automatically log all of your conversations with a client, so nothing gets lost in transit. You can also harness the power of AI to avoid getting blindsided by unhappy clients through predictive intelligence that flags potential problems before they become terminations.

What’s the Difference Between an ATS and a CRM? 

A customer relationship management (CRM) system is traditionally used to manage client-facing relationships while an ATS system is used to manage the candidate-side of your business. The two solutions don’t have to be separate, however.

Agencies can usually purchase a recruitment CRM with their ATS to gain full visibility into client activity. Recruitment CRM capabilities make it easier to manage all aspects of the client relationship, helping to generate and close job orders more efficiently. Capabilities will vary with each ATS, but to streamline your business, seek a single system that combines ATS and CRM functions so your team has everything they need in one place.

Must-Have ATS Features

A good applicant tracking system is more than the sum of its parts. That said, some features are particularly important to success. We surveyed Bullhorn customers to find out which features they can’t live without.

  • Notes: Every interaction you have with a candidate counts, so everything should be in your ATS. Add notes on a candidate record after an initial conversation or second interview to stay organised and keep your team up-to-date on the status of your candidates.
  • Tearsheets: Use tearsheets to organise your records into intuitive categories, such as “Top Sales Candidates” or “Available Engineers”. Now when you have a job to fill, you can take action immediately.
  • Submission Lists: Submission lists provide your team with visibility into your submissions and open jobs. Filter the list to quickly see relevant information like candidate status and job status.
  • Email Integration: With an email inbox gadget, you can see all the relevant information about your candidate in one place. Add notes, parse resumes, or attach files without leaving your inbox.

How Do I Find the Right ATS for Me?

How can you ensure that you choose the right ATS for your agency’s needs? Follow these steps to determine what you need in an applicant tracking system.

  • Review your recruiting process
    • Document your recruiting workflow steps, taking note of the activities necessary for a recruiter to do their job.
    • How often are you doing each of these steps?
    • What does your agency do really well?
    • Do you use any third-party tools like job boards or social media?
  • Determine what your current solutions are lacking
    • What are your biggest pain points?
    • Where do your recruiters spend the most time?
    • What features are you missing that would provide the most value to you?
  • Make an ATS wishlist
    • What would your perfect applicant tracking system look like?
    • Which features are must-haves and which ones are just nice-to-haves?

Share this list with prospective providers so they can address your specific needs.

What Should I Ask an ATS Provider Before I Buy?

Towards the end of your ATS journey, you’ll be scheduling demos with a shortlist of your top ATS choices. We put together a list of 50 questions you may want to ask. Here are ten questions you’ll want to be answered before you make this important investment.

  1. Does your applicant tracking system specialise in the specific needs of third-party recruitment agencies?
  2. How many recruitment agencies use your product?
  3. Does your ATS have a native mobile app?
  4. Do you have an open ecosystem with partner solutions that integrate with you ATS?
  5. Are you investing in improvements to your product?
  6. Does your ATS have any unique features that other systems don’t?
  7. Does your ATS offer a front-to-back experience—capabilities for the front office, middle office, and back-office?
  8. Are there ongoing resources for using and learning about the ATS?
  9. Is it possible to customise fields and workflows?
  10. Do you provide live or on-demand training support?

Ready to take a deeper dive into the world of applicant tracking systems? Check out the ATS Buyer’s Guide for everything you need to know to make a worthwhile investment in your recruitment agency’s future.