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Tricks of the Trade

HR leaders share their secrets for narrowing down the long list of recruiting vendors that claim their solutions are best.

Monday, October 2, 2006
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When it came time for Eric Puestow to help clothing retailer Tommy Hilfiger find a befitting recruitment tool, he learned there were plenty of solutions to try on for size. Although he's currently the manager of recruitment at clothing giant Abercrombie & Fitch in Albany, Ohio, Puestow spearheaded the vendor evaluation process at Tommy Hilfiger while serving as the retailer's manager of staffing and technology in early 2005. Within just days of beginning his search, Puestow had already compiled a list of 25 potential vendors.

These days, selecting a recruitment solution can feel more like searching for a needle in a haystack than evaluating cutting-edge technology. From applicant-tracking systems to talent-acquisition tools, there's simply no shortage of products promising to ease your hunt for just the right candidate.

As if the nearly 150 recruitment solution vendors flooding the marketplace today weren't enough to complicate the evaluation process, companies must also choose from a variety of key features including career portals and conceptual search technology, not to mention the difficulty deciding whether to outsource entirely, opt for an on-demand software model or implement an in-house system. It's almost enough to make a company pine for the days when recruitment technology consisted of little more than a one-size-fits-all applicant-tracking system.

Fortunately for Puestow and his HR colleagues, finding the right recruitment solution doesn't have to be a mind-boggling experience. According to Elaine Orler, a principal consultant with The Newman Group, a Phoenixville, Pa.-based consultancy, there are specific steps and evaluation tools that can help companies purchase an appropriate recruitment tool without breaking the bank, overtaxing their IT department or frustrating end-users.

"Lickety-Split"

The first step toward finding a perfect solution, says Orler, is establishing a vendor selection project plan that reflects your company's unique recruitment needs. Using this plan, companies can then determine how vendors' offerings measure up to each of their demands. Orler recommends dividing a vendor-selection project plan into three primary parts: functionality, technology and vendor compatibility.

When it comes to functionality, HR should take a long, hard look at factors such as major pain points in the recruiting process, what positions are typically in critical need of replenishment, how often the organization's recruitment processes are being overhauled and overall recruitment volume.

For example, a business that's simply in sustaining mode -- whose recruitment requirements rarely extend beyond replacing the odd employee -- requires a far different solution than a company in aggressive growth mode with high turnover rates.

For ConAgra Foods, functionality meant finding a robust solution capable of uniting the Omaha-based packaged-foods company's decentralized headquarter offices and manufacturing locations by leveraging both the Internet and an intranet.

According to Ed Davis, ConAgra's vice president of staffing, in 2004, ConAgra's recruitment strategy was little more than a "hodgepodge" of both semi-automated and paper-based systems. Although ConAgra already had an enterprisewide HR information system in place, Davis says upon careful examination of its functionality requirements, ConAgra turned to a best-of-breed talent management solution from BrassRing in Waltham, Mass.

"The major HRIS vendors just don't have the deep expertise in areas of recruiting that the best-of-breed firms have," says Davis. He points to functionalities such as the ability to automatically store all applications submitted online, help recruiters interact with talent via candidate-facing Web sites, limit candidate reviews to only those resumes that have been pre-screened for a particular position, and deliver automatic e-mail updates to job seekers once a desired position has been posted. In fact, over the past 12 months of using the BrassRing solution, ConAgra has filled more than 1,300 positions with a staff of 15 recruiters.

Not all companies place a premium on functional performance, however. For some, the technology aspect of a vendor-selection project plan is key. These days, vendors offer a wide range of software delivery options, from hosted applications and on-demand software services to highly customized in-house solutions.

Determining what best suits your company, says Orler, involves assessing factors such as how easily an application can be integrated with a back-office system, whether a third-party solution allows for direct integration with a company's e-mail exchange, and if security protocols such as firewall usage prevent partnering with an application-service provider.

When it came time for Virgin Mobile Canada to ramp up its recruitment efforts, technology played a major part in the company's vendor-selection process. Just two years ago, the Toronto-based mobile phone company was relying on newspaper ads, a handful of staffing agencies and a temporary Web site to recruit for nearly 75 positions.

While Lee Shemuel, Virgin Mobile Canada's HR manager, recalls being inundated with "thousands of resumes," there was no real way to communicate with candidates. Desperate to find talent capable of working in a fast-paced start-up environment, Shemuel knew that Virgin Mobile Canada needed a solution that could help the company bolster its ranks with qualified candidates -- and fast.

"Ease of implementation was a must. When you take a look at some of the big players, implementation time is months. It just wasn't something that was feasible. We needed to get a handle on things lickety-split," says Shemuel.

Shemuel began the process of evaluating eight vendors and their offerings. Following nearly six weeks' worth of product demonstrations and presentations, Shemuel narrowed his list down to two contenders. Upon reviewing both vendors' request-for-proposals, Shemuel opted to team up with Ottawa-based Workstream, which promised Virgin Mobile Canada a speedy implementation at a reasonable cost without the need for extensive customization -- the ideal technical fit for a newcomer in growth mode.

Beyond Dog-and-Pony Shows

Vendor compatibility is equal in importance to technological appropriateness, according to Orler. In today's saturated recruitment market, a vendor-selection project plan should also address whether a company is prepared to wager on an innovative yet untested pioneer, or sacrifice cutting-edge solutions for the security offered by an industry stalwart.

Either way, there's always the risk that your chosen vendor may wind up being swallowed by a larger competitor.

"There are still probably too many [recruitment] providers, more than the market can accommodate, and so a company needs to find out through due diligence if the vendor they're interested in has entertained any ideas of selling out," says Lisa Rowan, a human capital management analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass. This can be accomplished by reviewing SEC filings, sifting through online news archives and speaking with industry analysts.

Once a company has determined its unique needs, technical limitations and level of risk aversion, the next step entails in-depth vendor analysis through the use of a carefully crafted request-for-proposal template. Long gone are the days when a vendor could simply talk its way into a company's bank account.

Nowadays, an ideal RFP includes upwards of 25 essay questions calling for lengthy explanations and customer examples. In fact, Orler recommends giving vendors at least two weeks to respond before whittling one's shortlist to the top three contenders.

"Rushing the project from a compressed timeline is only going to hurt your evaluation process in the long run," she says.

Puestow knows all about the value of a strong RFP. Eager to find a vendor that could offer an alternative to Tommy Hilfiger's "stone age" and "antiquated" paper-based recruiting system, Puestow helped develop an RFP comprised of eight sections, each one outlining the company's "functional requirements," from the ability to electronically manage the recruitment pipeline to being able to edit an applicant-tracking system's data fields. Vendors were asked to check off which of the listed features their solutions offered or, alternatively, provide an explanation as to why a particular feature wasn't available.

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By demanding that vendors address Tommy Hilfiger's main points of concern via the RFP process, Puestow was eventually able to whittle his list of candidates down to one: iCIMS, a Hazlet, N.J.-based hiring solutions provider, as its vendor of choice from an initial pool of more than 25 companies.

And yet, for all the benefits of a carefully documented decision-making process, there's no discounting the value of hands-on experimentation. For this reason, Orler says a usability study can serve as a critical tool in the vendor-selection process.

"Let some of the recruiters get in and touch the product for some period of time," she says, adding that end-users should spend up to four hours per product performing everyday recruitment tasks. Such hands-on testing not only helps identify a product's shortcomings, but it can also enable a company to determine its managers' confidence level with a given product, future training requirements and realistic adoption rates. 

Another trick of the trade Orler recommends is establishing evaluation protocols, or standards to which a company must adhere throughout the selection process. These protocols may range from creating a dedicated evaluation team comprised of various departmental representatives to ensuring that the selection process is based on facts and figures, not emotions.

Eliminating the emotion quotient was a top priority for Virgin Mobile Canada. According to Shemuel, it's imperative companies look beyond a vendor's "dog-and-pony show" in order to realistically assess a solution's overall value and cultural fit. "Ultimately, it doesn't matter how many pens, hats and t-shirts a vendor gives out, if the product is not useful to me, that stuff is lost," he says.

A "Day in the Life"

IDC's Rowan offers her own suggestion for adhering to an evaluation protocol such as emotion-free decision-making. Rather than allowing vendors to call their own shots when it comes to product demonstrations, she suggests creating a stringent script for finalists to follow when presenting products and outlining their benefits.

These scripts often entail "a day-in-the-life" scenario in which a company presents a vendor with a storyboard to follow that includes the profile of a fictitious job applicant. It's up to the vendor to demonstrate how its solution would carry the applicant from first point-of-contact through to a final job offer from various points of view covering the candidate experience, the recruiter experience and the hiring manager experience.

"You really then are able to dictate to the vendor what you want to see in that demo so the vendor isn't just wowing you with bells and whistles," says Rowan. What's more, she adds, a scripted demonstration helps level the playing field among vendors and allows companies to easily detect functional and technical parities.

If there's ever a time to be flexible throughout the evaluation process, however, it's in the final stage: negotiations. It's at this crucial juncture that months' worth of carefully weighed RFPs, evaluation team meetings and product demonstrations can easily go to waste over a single ill-conceived dollar sign. It's for this reason that companies would be wise to consider a solution's cost as only part-and-parcel of the vendor-selection process. After all, the price tag for hundreds of unfilled positions can be just as hefty as that of an ATS.

"How much does it cost for a job to remain open? What does it cost to hire the wrong person? These are the costs that companies should be concerned about," says Barry Siegel, president of Recruitment Enhancement Services, a Houston-based provider of outsourced recruiting services

That's not to suggest, however, that companies should simply roll over and promptly accept a vendor's first offer. Just ask Tommy Hilfiger's Puestow. He recalls spending three weeks negotiating a final contract with iCIMS during which Tommy Hilfiger's legal, IT and e-commerce department heads all had an opportunity to review the vendor's proposed service-level agreement before signing on the dotted line.

"There is room in every single contract," says Puestow. "It's just like a car price, so don't be afraid to drive hard. This is when you'll find out how badly a [vendor] wants your business."

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