The ATS and CRM: A Founder's Perspective

What is the difference between a CRM and an ATS? Read on to learn more about the difference from a founder's perspective.

Tali Rapaport
Co-Founder & CEO, Puck

I’m Tali, the co-founder of Puck, a recruiting technology company leading in employer branding and candidate engagement. I’m writing this blog post because the topic of what a CRM and an ATS is comes up so often when I talk to recruiting leaders, that I think the difference between these two pieces of technology is hard to understand. 

CRM and ATS Overview

There are two things that make this confusing – 1) the names and 2) the common features included in each.

Let’s start with the name. CRM stands for candidate relationship management, which would imply how you manage your relationship with your candidates. But that isn’t what a recruiting CRM does at all… because your relationship with your active candidates is really managed through the applicant tracking system while your relationship with prospective candidates is managed through the CRM.

Second, it’s pretty unclear what common features are in each bucket of software. And, a lot of companies don’t manage relationships with prospective candidates at all outside of sourcing – which is the equivalent to marketing without building up an email marketing list and having to start from scratch for each email campaign. More on this when I talk about what a CRM actually means below. 

Applicant Tracking System (ATS)

An ATS, or applicant tracking system, is a system that organizations use to track the progress of their applicants through the system. 

Is that it? No, not really. 

Today, applicant tracking systems are also the system of record of a company's open roles. And because they are the software where companies use to store their job descriptions, they also are the system that pushes those open roles to third party job boards like Indeed and LinkedIn. 

At first glance, distributing jobs doesn’t have anything to do with tracking applicants – but it’s important for recruitment marketing to tie budgets back to the source of candidates. And it's helpful for one piece of software to report on how applicants break down by source, and how hires break down by source. As the ATS houses your candidate progress, it’s the most convenient place for candidate source attribution to live. However, it does explain the connection between ATS and recruitment marketing. 

This brings me to the third thing that most ATS like to include – reporting. This is totally standard and I think the best practice today is to actually get your reporting from your ATS. However, it is particularly hard to get this right. 

The biggest challenge is that often source tracking doesn’t flow correctly through the ATS so you don’t know where your candidates are from. And, the reporting demands on recruiting teams have only gone up with the culture of people analytics, so there is more demand than ever for clean and well formatted reports. 

To recap, an ATS has 3 things. 

  1. Interview tracking
  2. Job description setup & distribution
  3. Reporting

Candidate/Customer Relationship Management System (CRM)

What is a CRM? Not an ATS. 

A CRM, or candidate/customer relationship management system is something that maintains a relationship with a pool of people. In the recruiting context, that is prospective applicants, not current applicants. So this is really where you keep your leads. 

However, does that make the CRM the same as the internet? No. 

Why not? Well, although it’s true that anyone could apply to your open role, that is too big of a universe to actually maintain a relationship with them.

So more practically, your sourcing tools are not an ATS. Not Gem, nor HireEZ. They can say they are a CRM, but they aren’t. They are just a place to set up campaigns and report on them.

Instead, a CRM maintains an ongoing relationship which you don’t expect to end until the person applies to an open role. 

All recruiting CRM includes some concept of what the content is that you’re going to be continually pushing out to candidates should be. 

The challenge there is that your jobs are one really excellent type of content to push out. But, chances are that sending someone a job quarterly, or even annually to consider, doesn’t really maintain a relationship – which is the definition of a CRM, after all. 

It’s much easier to reach back out with the open role if you’ve shared something else before the open job. And, that is why Puck is a CRM. We give you something else to share: stories from your team. 

It isn’t the only content you can share, but it’s scalable content that can turn into an always open drip campaign to prospective candidates. And, by pulling in prior applicants, you can jump start your applicant pool immediately. For a lot of companies, this is the best way to get started. 

CRM Essentials

There are 3 things that are crucial for a CRM to get right: 

  1. A list of prospective candidates
  2. Content to share with candidates
  3. Logic to map which candidates get which content

Let’s dive deeper into the first crucial CRM element: a list of prospective candidates.

Prospective Candidate Lists

Today, the most common way for candidates to get into a CRM for a company is for there to be a common application or email subscription widget on a company’s career site where a candidate can drop their information. 

However, this ignores three of the most important groups of prospective candidates: 

  1. It ignores the silver medalists. 

This group includes the candidates who didn’t take the job, had to drop out because of another offer or perhaps were overqualified for the role that you had open. These terrific candidates often got into the interview stage but weren’t right for the exact role and timing that you had. But they were really good. There is a ton of value in tagging candidates on their way out of the interview process with whether or not they should stay in touch with the company. 

It’s common for companies to not stay in touch with candidates at all. And, some companies put all candidates in the stay-in-touch bucket. But very few companies do a good job of differentiating between candidates they do and don’t want to keep in touch with, and that’s a pool that grows every day.

  1. This ignores people who were interested and dropped out of the application.

Today most companies don’t track drop off on the application process. And if they do, it's rare for them to automatically include in the application process the idea that candidates might want to hear more about their open roles. But, that’s a reasonable assumption.  

  1. This doesn’t filter out people who aren’t close to qualified.

It’s frustrating for a candidate to continue to get communications from a company about prospective roles where there is very little chance that they will get hired. I think this is particularly unnecessary, where there are credentials or qualifications for open roles that are very clear. Nurses will always need a nursing degree, and therapists will also need to be credentialed. So, having smart filters that work to make sure the people you’re communicating with are actually the right group is totally missing from most concepts of a CRM. But, when it’s included, then the CRM becomes 10x more useful. 

Puck aside, keep in mind that CRMs are really powerful recruiting tools. But you need a strategy for what to put into them to maintain the relationships. 

To return to the confusion, I think a lot of people look to their ATS to track applicants through their lifecycle. This is smart and needed. But, it is meaningfully different from tracking people who haven’t yet entered an active interview process. 

It does require an upfront investment in the upfront part of the hiring process. For this investment, you get the payoff of time and money back. Because you end up investing in higher quality, more motivated candidates. And with that investment, you’ll get back both time and money.

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