This new workflow gets our agency faster client approvals

Our agency’s workflow used to look like this, and while it went well most of the time… it also led to heartache, never-ending projects, and early-onset baldness due to pulling all of our hair out:

  1. Conduct all research
  2. Create copy & design, obsess over it, make it perfect
  3. Show client & hope for the best

Why was this a disaster?

In all honesty, projects went well most of the time. And maybe you’ve experienced the same.

Clients come to us because they trust us and love our aesthetic, so they typically love what we create.

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But there’s a big risk in doing things this way: We put a lot of our eggs in one basket for step #2. But what if the client hated it? What if the direction was all wrong? What if they wanted / expected something completely different?

We’d have to go back to square one after putting in the sweat, blood, and hours that go into a final proof. Or, we’d have to spend hours in back-and-forth justifying our decisions to the client and ultimately getting them to sign off on something they just didn’t like.

(And not every client is sophisticated or impartial enough to set their own preferences aside in the name of giving the market what it wants.)

But in my experience, a lot of freelancers and agencies follow a similar workflow, and face similar disasters. I think this is why:

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The fear of too many cooks in the kitchen.

We’ve all had experiences where the client weighed in on every stage of a project, and that, in short, was a nightmare.

It gave us no space to stretch out and let our creativity expand and flow.

We hated feeling micromanaged.

We dreaded feedback.

So after living through that, my conclusion, and maybe yours too, was to limit feedback as much as possible. Heck – why not make feedback just at the very end… and nowhere in between?

But there were times where this went wrong… horribly wrong.

And those times hurt. Bad. Because we put days, weeks, into a proof that got rejected faster than [insert pop culture dating reference here… because I am totally up to date on that stuff].

The worst part is after you show a concept that a client hates, you’re then sort of stuck being micromanaged. Because what else is there to do from that point on than to just keep showing them concept after concept until you finally strike gold and they say yes?

These experiences killed my morale, made me want to quit altogether at times, and sucked up time I could have used on other projects, growth, and my personal life.

Impossible to scale.

This workflow presents another issue as well: It makes it extremely hard to scale your business.

When client approval is a crapshoot, where it’s either a “hell yes!” or a “hell no, start over” – and you can never predict when it’ll happen – you can only grow so much.

Your growth depends on your time. And if you don’t know when all of your time will be taken up for months on end with never-ending projects that never get approved…

It’s really hard to grow.

Introducing: the “3 bears” middle ground.

Involve the client too much, and sure, you won’t risk spending tons of time on a “wrong” direction – but you do face the soul-crushing reality of being micromanaged.

Involve the client too little – and you face the other picture painted above.

So what’s the alternative? Like Goldilocks and her 3 bowls of stolen porridge, you have to involve the client “just right.”

To do that, we tested & refined this workflow. So far, it’s worked wonders:

  1. Conduct all research
  2. Outline a creative brief including overall design / copy direction and get the client to sign off on it
  3. Get copy approved
  4. Create a rough concept based on the approved direction that includes some of the copy laid out, and get it signed off on
  5. Go to town. Put your heart & soul into creating a finished product knowing your client is happy with the direction (and you have email proof confirming it).
  6. Share with the client and make small revisions as necessary
  7. Voila! Project complete

We bypass micromanagement, endless revisions, and flat out “no”s by getting the client to sign off on things. Twice.

We keep them “out of the kitchen” when we’re doing the cooking, but basically appear every now and then to give them a taste and ask if it needs some salt.

Because when you think about it, there are two places where projects go wrong:

  1. The client just hates the overall direction / angle you took
  2. The client likes the direction, but just isn’t crazy about how you executed it

#1 is solved by creating a brief. #2 is solved by showing an initial concept.

It sounds simple, and I wonder how we didn’t think of it sooner, but it’s worked like magic for us since we started implementing it.

An important question: “How much time do I put into this initial concept though?”

Think of it like this: If you’re designing a website, maybe put a good bit of effort into creating the “above the fold” section of the home page. Or if you’re too hesitant to do even that, maybe compile a “mood board” of samples that you feel capture what you’re going for and pass that along.

A mood board is a great tool that can eliminate the need to create a concept if the examples are striking enough and telling enough of what you plan to do.

But ultimately, a concept is still safer because you never know what the client “saw” in your examples. They may have walked away from the mood board with a completely different idea.

(Sometimes we’ve done both mood boards and concepts when we sensed confusion from the client – that’s a great fail-safe I think.)

Simple? Yes. Effective? Very.

With that said, I know we have room to grow even more. Do you have any great workflow tips for approval you can share?

I’d love to hear about them. Leave me a comment and let’s discuss.

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  1. Hi David, It’s fun to read and I wondered why so many agencies are having this issue. In this article you mentioned the fear of micro-management. For me it was kinda weird that before I started my own company, the printers house I worked was using the same method. It always felt as too much work for nothing.

    My approach is similar to what you described above only with some little changes.

    I try to understand the client as best as possible, so this means a long talk beforehand and asking for references of competing companies for inspiration (I mostly do logo and branding design). A funny and good working tweak I recently added of not having too much steps of forth and backwards communication is, to give a discount if the client choose from the first two designs and have no second chances anymore. It’s sort of a creative competition with the client, he has to trust me and I need to understand him really well for making the correct design at once!

    And the concept phase is a good one, plus that I added a design debriefing wherein the briefing with the client is translated to design principles which shows them his values in a designy output.

    And finally I think that to the point feedback helps making you a better designer, so don’t be afraid to ask your client. Because they appreciate it more if you take their wishes into account!

    1. Hey, Bert!

      All great points. Sounds like you have a great system there.

      “…give a discount if the client choose from the first two designs and have no second chances anymore.”

      ^ Haha that is pretty brilliant.

      Does it ever backfire? Or can the clients give up the discount to get other designs?

  2. It sounds like you usually submit one concept to the client, is that so?
    Some other things I do to make sure I’m on the same path as a client are:
    – Share private pinterest board with some inspiration images, and get the client to add their own and comment on mine. Ensures we’re using the same vocabulary on visual content and sets expectations
    – Show a preliminary concept that clarifies the barking-up-the-right-tree question. Not all clients can view something rough and know how to respond/not panic, so its case by case.
    – Submit 3 concepts that show different approaches, to start a conversation with the client about what feels right to them about their brand and what doesnt, and move forward based on that feedback

  3. What?! Thank you thank you. Your timing is incredible and I’m so grateful. This is exactly what I needed to read today. I really needed a new way to do things and your ideas will turn my work around. I can’t believe I’ve been doing it all backwards. The steps are now on my noticeboard ready to follow.

    1. Hey, Rebecca! That is so great to hear 😀

      I know, it’s crazy how simple it is, right? It only took us 7 years to figure it out lol.

      So glad it helped. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Awesome read! Very timely article as I’m just getting into the freelancing business now.

    I have a few questions on the terminology you used. What are some practical examples of “copy”, “brief”, and “concepts” in the context of website design? What kind of programs do you use to demonstrate these?

    In particular, with the 3 Bears Middle Ground Approach, would you mind laying out a little more in-depth what each step means?

    Since I’m really new to this business, I have a lot of questions. I hope asking isn’t an inconvenience to you.

    1. Hi Paul, hopefully I can help you out with your questions 🙂

      “Copy” refers to the text that is written up for a project. So if it was for a website, it would be all the Titles/Headings for the pages and all the paragraphs, etc.

      “Creative Brief” can vary exactly in what it entails from company to company, but generally this is a written document from you to show the client. It outlines what you understand to be their needs and how you plan to best meet those with your approach.

      “Concepts” again can vary, but basically, it’s a rough draft of the final product. For a logo, this could be some black and white sketches to show where you are heading.

      Hope that helps!

    2. Hey, Paul!

      I had answered this for you in the Millo Mastermind Facebook group, but wanted to post here too incase anyone else has these questions 🙂

      Mindy nailed it above for the most part 🙂

      Here’s the answer:

      Hey Paul Su! So the “copy” is the actual written content you create for the site (if you do that part)…

      The “brief” is a document where you essentially breakdown what you learned from your research of the market, competition, and the client itself and as such the direction you want to take things (i.e. what feeling you want the site to evoke, how you feel you can connect to the market, etc)

      The design “concept” is a proof showcasing a portion of the design that reflects the brief, or a mood board of various samples that capture the direction your’e going for.

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