The lights are down, the credit card statement looms, the tree's been recycled and thoughts turn to how to lose those extra few pounds that crept up on you over the festive season.

But at this time of year when we're thinking about those new year's resolutions, how about some for your business? Staying competitive has to be at the top of your list.

Markets rarely afford you the opportunity to rest on your laurels. The key to remaining competitive is knowing the principal drivers in your marketplace and developing and positioning products and services accordingly.

In essence, this means keeping one eye on your customers and striving to delight them, and keeping the other eye on your competitors and striving to outshine them.

Successful businesses know their customers, understand their present needs, and successfully anticipate their future needs. Leading-edge businesses strive not just to meet their customers' expectations, but to exceed them. At the very least, this means excelling on quality, delivery, and price, often in that order.

But many businesses these days regard these as the minimum requirements for surviving in the marketplace. Gaining a competitive edge means introducing innovative products or services customised to meet specific customer needs.

As your market becomes crowded with competitors it gets harder to maintain your differentiation. When this happens you have to reinvent your market position through continual innovation. This is a complex, evolving process that includes creating a culture that encourages and rewards innovation, awareness of new technologies and developments in legislation and exploiting them to gain a competitive edge.

To drive innovation, you need a constant stream of ideas which can be gained from listening to your customers their complaints as much as their suggestions talking to your suppliers about their future developments, monitoring your competitors, encouraging your employees to suggest innovations and benchmarking against top performing businesses in your own and other market sectors.

One thing is certain - if you are successful in developing products or services that delight your customers, competitors will appear like stars on a clear night. Never take your eye off the ball as far as your competitors are concerned, and never underestimate their potential to wrong foot you. Whether you are watching them or not, you can be sure they are watching you.

New year's resolution number two? Make that call about gym membership!

  • With Rob Harman of Morris Owen