Tips for Applicant Tracking System Vendor Selection: RFPs

Selecting and implementing a new technology to support human resources operations is an important task. As part of the procurement process, many organizations will issue a request for proposal (RFP) containing hundreds of questions about the vendor’s system features. Unfortunately, asking question after question about specific software features is worst possible way to evaluate new technology providers.

Often, purchasing organizations draft RFPs that dictate exactly how the purchasing organization believes that each software feature should work. It is important to note that in the technology sphere, different vendors offer solutions that achieve the same goal by different means. If featurespecific questions are based upon the purchasing organization’s current technology, it is possible that these questions will describe less-desirable “features” as required, rather than allowing a provider to explain a better solution.

And simply asking multiple vendors whether or not they have particular features tells the purchasing organization very little about the vendor’s product or the vendor’s capabilities to support the customer for the long term. Furthermore, the purchasing organization will often find that, on paper, most vendors providing the same type of software all have the same general features. Every Applicant Tracking System will offer a requisition approval process, for example, but some solutions offer intuitive, user-friendly approval features and some offer clunky, rigid ones. A simple “yes” or “no” response will not allow the purchasing organization to select the best fit.

Furthermore, it is important to note that it is very easy for a vendor to claim that their software meets the RFP feature requirements when they are presented as checklist items without needing to further support their solution. These basic questions will not let the purchasing organization get a true sense of the effort that will be needed to assure that the solution meets their needs, instead allowing organizations to describe complex workarounds as “existing features.”

So, basically, investing time into creating an RFP that asks questions about specific features is an exercise in futility! Instead, focus on what you need to know to discover if a vendor is strong enough in this space to serve as a true technology partner.

Use the RFP to determine if vendors can explain how their products and services will solve YOUR problems.

Rather than focusing on specific features you THINK you need, it is important to realize that you don’t know what you don’t know. With technology changing by the minute, it is impossible for anyone to know all of the solutions that are available. Instead of getting hung up on specific features, focus more broadly on your operations in terms of the areas that the product is likely to impact. Before you develop your RFP, ask your key stakeholders:

  • What are your challenges?
  • What works well right now?
  • Which current processes are mandatory?
  • Which processes are unnecessary/optional?
  • What doesn’t work well?
  • What is completely broken?
  • Where can you save time?

Now, based on the operational challenges you have identified, create a list of open-ended questions the vendors can answer in free-text indicating how the product will help eliminate those challenges and streamline your operations. Once you receive the vendor responses, read them thoroughly and compare their answers side-by-side. Then, ask for the vendors with the best answers for a deep-dive demonstration to see how well the product works in reality. With this method, you will learn about product features, functionalities, and methods to address your organizational challenges that you never imagined could exist in the real world. And, you will be getting free consultation services from multiple experts in the field. The RFP process can serve as an excellent learning opportunity.

Use the RFP to make sure there are exemplary (and affordable) support services available to your company before, during, and after the software’s implementation.

While it is best to allow vendors some freedom in describing how the technology solution is uniquely qualified to solve your organization’s challenges, there are some questions that need to be asked explicitly. A strong RFP must serve to gather information about the support services that will be available to your company before, during, and after the software’s implementation, and how much different support services will cost if they are not included in the base package.

Before implementation, the software vendor should provide some degree of best practice consultation pertaining to system configuration, implementation timelines, and eventual rollout of the product. In traditional project management, this is an imperative step to ensuring that the system is set up in a way that will ultimately meet your needs. To that end, the RFP should serve to confirm that some form of consultative pre-implementation support will be provided.

Next, implementing a new software is a huge project and any missteps can result in implementation delays, exceeded budgets, and/or ending up with a poorly set up software that creates more problems than it solves. A strong RFP can help you to avoid these problems by asking important questions that will help you plan the implementation project. Accordingly, the RFP must ask questions about implementation project methodology, vendor resource allocation, customer resource allocation, data migration capabilities and best practices (if applicable), communication plans, change management, project risks, end-user software training, and plans for software testing prior to go live.

Even the best software with the best implementation runs a serious risk of collapse once the implementation manager lets go. Too often, companies find that they are completely alone after implementation. New software learning curves and so called “best practice” process changes are huge challenges for a company to endure. Before you know it, user adoption declines, bad habits emerge, and ultimately you have a disaster on your hands. Even if your organization is lucky enough to survive those challenges, without support, how will you solve day-to-day problems or learn about new developments in the product (and how to use new features), industry trends, and technological advancements that may help your organization?

The RFP is the perfect place to ask questions about ongoing, post-implementation support. Be sure to ask vendors what on-going training is available and what the training costs are. Further, the RFP should ask about ongoing account management, support services or help desk availability, user groups, and thought leadership.

Use the RFP to make sure the vendor will be still be able to support your needs over time in terms of financial strength, product development plans, and scalability.

Next, a strong RFP must inquire about the vendor’s viability in terms of financial strength and product development plans. In this age of technological advancement, technology companies come and go as a result of inability to secure funding or keep up with technology. Implementing a new software is a big undertaking and you don’t want you efforts to be in vain if the vendor should fail in either of these respects. Accordingly, the RFP must include questions about the vendor’s profitability and ongoing availability capital.

In addition to financial matters, the RFP must include question about the company’s growth and sustainability plans. It is important to remember that a software vendor’s viability hinges on the company’s ability to remain competitive in terms of sales and marketing as well as product development and technology. Be sure to ask the vendor about their development roadmap. While some vendors will be hesitant to provide exact details for fear that competitors will get their hands on the information, the vendor should be able to give you a general idea about their future plans and development methodology. Also, be sure to ask about the vendor’s sales and marketing strategy. Obviously, continued company viability also hinges on the company’s ability to sell their products for a profit.

Finally, make sure that the vendor is prepared to scale with your business needs over time without requiring expensive upgrades or the threat of deletion of key data. The vendor should be prepared to make guarantees surrounding their ability to support your growing business needs and be able to provide information regarding the vendor’s past successes supporting clients’ growing business needs.

After reviewing RFP responses, ask top vendors to show you how important tasks are accomplished.

As you can see, an RFP is a great way to investigate vendors and learn new things that can have a positive impact on your human resources operations. Still, the RFP response is not the end all. Obviously, you will want to know how a system functions before you buy it. Do not rely on the RFP response to tell you about features. Ask your vendors to give you deep-dive demonstration of the product. Ask them to show you exactly how important tasks are accomplished. Take copious notes for every vendor, compare the notes side-by-side, and choose the vendor that has the easiest to use and most flexible features that meet your needs.

It is important to note that flexibility and scalability is KEY. Over time, your operations will change and the products you use will need to adapt to produce a positive return on investment. Assuming that you are not opting for any type of custom coding, some products will require a certain degree of set up or configuration before all features are enabled. As a courtesy to the vendor and to save yourself from wasted time, provide the vendor with a list of what you want to see in advance of the demonstration. If you are seeking custom coding, the vendor may be unable to demonstrate exactly what you are requesting. If that is the case, ask the vendor to demonstrate previous projects that are similar in nature to yours. In this way, you can get a feel for what the vendor is able to do.

It is important to note, however, that custom coding when it is not absolutely necessary is rarely the best option. Custom coding can be very expensive to develop and maintain. Today, many software systems are highly configurable, which means that the system’s look, feel, and function is controlled by on/off switches and highly editable fields. Configurability provides optimal flexibility without excessive fees resulting in a greater return on investment for your software purchase.

Final thoughts

In order to help you select the very best applicant tracking system for your company, we have drafted a sample RFP that incorporates the best practices explained in this whitepaper. Use this sample RFP as a guide to asking questions that will reveal the most important information about the HR technology vendor. This sample RFP is fully-editable so you can add or remove questions according to your organization’s unique business needs.

About iCIMS

iCIMS, a leading provider of innovative Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) talent acquisition solutions, is an Inc. 500 and Software Satisfaction honoree focused on helping businesses win the war for top talent through the implementation of easy-to-use, scalable solutions that are backed by awardwinning customer service. iCIMS' Talent Platform, the industry's premier candidate management solution, enables organizations to leverage mobile, social, and video technologies to manage their entire talent acquisition lifecycle from building talent pools, to recruiting, to onboarding all within a single web-based application. iCIMS is one of the largest and fastest-growing talent acquisition system providers with offices in North America, UK, and China. To learn more about how iCIMS can help your organization, visit or view a free online demo of the iCIMS Talent Platform.